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Bible Q

Why did God command the Israelites to engage in holy war?

The book of Joshua is about the invasion and occupation of the land of Canaan by the Israelites. This was commanded by God.

For example

And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will give over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.” 7 So Joshua and all his warriors came suddenly against them by the waters of Merom and fell upon them. 8 And the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel, who struck them and chased them … until he left none remaining. 9 And Joshua did to them just as the Lord said to him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire … And they struck with the sword all who were in [Hazor], devoting them to destruction; there was none left that breathed. And he burned Hazor with fire. … And all the spoil of these cities and the livestock, the people of Israel took for their plunder. But every man they struck with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed. 15 Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:6-15)

Such complete destruction seems harsh. It involved children who were too young to have done wrong and painful treatment of innocent animals. But we need to recognize that God had commanded these actions. In seeking to understand the moral difficulties here, the following points are worth noting.

  1. God is our creator and giver of life. He has a right to judge individuals and nations, and to take away life if he chooses. He has that right whether or not we understand the reasons.
  2. When a person is seriously ill, radical surgery is sometimes necessary for the sake of the rest of the body. It seems that the Canaanites were sufficiently immoral that God considered it better to destroy them than to persist with them. God’s purpose is creating people who will reflect his character. It was better to have some people with the opportunity to serve him faithfully (the Israelites), then have a situation where the corrupt morality of the Canaanites infected everyone in the area.
  3. The failure to completely carry out God’s policy of extermination led to the downfall of the people of Israel only a century or two later, as recorded in the book of Judges. Not until the time of David about 400 years later did the Israelites succeed in completing the conquest of the land.
  4. God required destruction of things or people when they violently and steadfastly prevented his work over a long period of time. In the case of the Canaanites, it had been several centuries (Genesis 15:13-16). His pattern is to give people plenty of opportunity to repent first. But when a nation is burning children as a gift to the gods (Leviticus 18:21) and practising perverted sexuality (Leviticus 18:25-30), God’s patience will run out.
  5. The situation for Israel in the Old Testament was very different from what any nation faces today. They were God’s chosen people and were responsible to keep true religion alive and pure. All other countries were pagan. Any foreigner who wanted to follow the one true God needed to become associated with Israel. Under the New Testament, believers are scattered across all countries, and there is no command to wage war of any kind against anyone. In fact, quite the opposite: we are to live peacably with unbelievers (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).

7 Replies to “Why did God command the Israelites to engage in holy war?”

  1. Dear Rob I have read your comments, and as you will guess I’m afraid I cannot agree with you.You state, “God has a RIGHT to………..take away life”, and again “God’s purpose is creating people who will reflect His character”.
    In the first instance I cannot believe that God’s JUSTICE is inferior to yours or mine……………”RIGHTS” apart. To include innocent children in His judgements of Israel’s enemies seems a gross injustice to me, and runs totally counter to what we see in and learn from Christ.( and remember Israel at one time TAUGHT the pagan nations around them to sin, and they were’nt wiped out ) 1 Peter 2. 21 tells us the “Christ is our EXAMPLE, that we should follow in His steps”, and He said, “Render to NO man evil for evil”. “Bless them that curse you”, “Pray for them that despitefully use you” “LOVE YOUR ENEMIES”, “If your enemy hunger, feed him”.”They that live by the sword shall perish by the sword”.
    If as you say,”God is creating a people to reflect His character”, is there not a glaring contradiction here ? Are we to emulate the “alledged” character of God seen in the genocide of the Old Testament, or are we to reflect the character of Him of whom it was said, “When He suffered, He threatened not”, of whom it was also said, “All His ways are righteousness and ALL HIS PATHS ARE PEACE” ????
    Rob I see the Bible as a record of man’s search for God, and of God’s efforts to make Himself known. As we progress through the Bible we see a great unfolding and it contains man’s misconceptions about God, as well as God’s revealed truth.Man’s misconception is seen in the death of Uzzah, but God’s revealed truth is seen in the life of King David; in the acquisition of Bathsheba David plumbed the depths of sin, but in is guilt He discovered the forgiveness of God and went on the write the 23rd Psalm…………”He leadeth me beside the still waters; He RESTORETH my soul”. He discovered the truth of Isaiah 55 where the TRUE nature of God is seen, “Let the wicked man return unto the Lord……..for HE will have MERCY on him and will ABUNDANTLY pardon him……….for says God MY ways are NOT your ways”. What was man’s misconception of God ? What was man’s ways………………..”an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. God says in Isaiah, “NO ! NO, I am above that sort of thing, MY THOUGHTS ARE HIGHER THAN YOUR THOUGHTS”.
    If “Jesus Christ is the SAME yesterday, TODAY and FOREVER”, then Rob you have some explaining to do. The alleged character of God in the O.T. is completely different to what we see of God in Christ. You cannot make excuses or try to justify the massacres that took place in the O.T. allegedly at the command of God. As I asked you once before, If God is UNCHANGING; the same person we see in the N.T. (Jesus and God are ONE ) then can you imagine the Christ of God ripping a tiny baby from it’s mother’s breast and plunging a sword into it’s belly , then proceeding to butcher it’s mother and go on and on doing that ? With respect Rob, you need to be honest to God and to yourself, YOU KNOW THAT CAN’t BE RIGHT !! Try my benchmark when reading the Bible, namely God is Good’ God Is Just; God is Holy; God is Love. and measure what you read against that benchmark, and if it does’nt fit, reject it. It will set you free, free to face the biggest challenge of your life. Love is the only basis for a valid relationship with anyone…………but more so with God. Once you introduce and element of threat or fear, you invalidate the relationship. The challenge is that if God loves you with all your faults, who are you to hold out against those who wrong you. “We LOVE him because He first LOVED us”, now you and I if we would “reflect HIS character” must love our fellowman like He loves us. You’ve said it yourself, “God’s purpose is creating people who will reflect HIS character. Love to you Rob, and my prayerful good wishes. John J.

  2. So what you are saying is that God has revealed himself in the scriptures, but anything that doesn’t fit our conception of him should be rejected? Can we really treat God’s word that way? Or is it not his word after all?

    Exodus 34:6-7 (ESV) 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

    God reveals two sides of his character here, one the merciful and loving side that you refer to, the other the side that will judge justly and will not clear the guilty. As you say, God’s ways are higher than ours, and so we might not understand them, but judging them according to our perceptions seems highly dangerous. I think it is a lot safer to accept God as he has revealed himself to us.

  3. God Destroyed Sodom by his own hand not by soldiers. If God is capable of destroying life why does he need to command people to do it in his name? Why couldn’t God destroy Canaanites on his own?

    • God chooses how and when to execute his desires. He commanded Moses to strike a rock and obtain water to quench the thirst of the children of Israel and this he could have done himself. It’s not Moses who later on commanded food to rain from heaven but God did it himself this time around. The fight was between the just and the unjust and God has promised victory to his faithful, whereas Sodom was not at war with another community but was living in sin. God had destroyed the world in the time of Noah because it was evil. He gave the Israelites the supernatural strength to fight the Canaanites which is a proof to both camps of his awesome power and the privileges vested on his faithful. The Israelites enjoyed divine favor which gave them a greater sense of confidence, assurance, security and hope and equally greatness before man.

      My question is this: If a terrorist is about to pull the trigger of a cannon which is intended to destroy thousands of lives and one finds an opportunity to do away with his life before he causes this enormous damage, can it be judged right before God? Killing to save lives in a situation where dialogue is absolutely impossible.

  4. Umm..Deuteronomy 7…And if gods word is absolute there would be no need for a “New” Testament. You all need to admit that the world is round and move on so we can evolve

    • Deuteronomy 7 definitely talks about the order to defeat and destroy the inhabitants of the promised land. Joshua records a lot of this happening. But I’m not sure how much that has to do with the Old Testament vs. the New Testament. The fact that God’s word is absolute doesn’t mean that every revelation from God must be complete. God had a plan for humanity, which took time. The things in the Old Testament were intended to lead us to Christ (the founder of the New Covenant described in the New Testament). That doesn’t mean that the best way for God to work would have been to deliver the entire New Testament 15 seconds after delivering the entire Old Testament. It catalogues a process of development necessary for us to gain understanding of how God works and how he wants us to respond.

      And I don’t know what this has to do with the world being round.