How Can We Justify the Killing in the Old Testament?
How could a good God — a God of peace — condone warfare as He does in the Old Testament? This question might be in reference to passages such as 1 Chronicles 5:21,22: “They also took one hundred thousand people captive, and many others fell slain, because the battle was God’s.” But more than simply condoning warfare, God seems to command it. He even gave instructions concerning how to conduct war, and commanded the mass killing of the inhabitants of particular cities.
When a skeptic examines the Old Testament, it is important for him to remember that God did not approve of everything recorded in the Bible. For example, the Bible records the assassination of a man called Eglon (Judges 3:17–25). This action is neither condemned nor praised; it is simply relayed to us. A large proportion of the acts of violence recorded in the Bible fall into this category. We need to be careful, then, how we read the different accounts of war in the Old Testament.
It is true, however, that some wars are commanded by God, particularly regarding Israel’s taking possession of the land God gave them after they were rescued from slavery in Egypt. For many generations, Christians have deliberated over how to understand these passages.
The Old and New Testaments present a portrait of God as one who judges evil. In the Old Testament, one means of God’s judgment is war. In the Old Testament, war and struggle are in the context of a wider cosmic struggle between good and evil (a struggle that continues in the New Testament).
A Christian reading of the Old Testament interprets the battles depicted there in this context of a larger struggle. The battle of Jericho, the wars against the southern coalition of Canaanite kings, and the wars against the northern coalition in Canaan would be included in this context.
God fought on behalf of many of the judges in the Old Testament — as well as faithful kings such as David and Jehoshaphat — in judgment of evil practices. God even used foreign nations to fight against Israel’s enemies in ways that helped His people. For example, the prophet Nahum announced the appearance of the divine warrior who would fight (in this instance, the Babylonians) against Israel’s longtime oppressor, Assyria.
It is vital to note that Israel was not always the one who brought about God’s will on the battlefield. In fact, the Israelites were often on the receiving end of God’s judgment. At times, they were massacred and enslaved, but at other times they were militarily victorious. We would be misunderstanding the Old Testament if we said that God was always on Israel’s side. Israel’s election as God’s chosen people was not a carte blanche to wage war against anyone at any time. At certain times God used Israel as an instrument of His judgment against evil and oppressive nations; at other times He judged them, and they were on the receiving end of war.
Deuteronomy 20 records the rules of war for God’s people. These rules dictate justice, fairness, and kindness in the use of the sword. God allowed special hardship conditions as grounds for excusing soldiers from military duty. The nation of Israel waived a soldier’s military obligation until he no longer qualified for exemption under those conditions (Deuteronomy 20:5–7). Israel even sent home those who had no such excuse, but were afraid or reluctant to fight (verse 8).
Unlike the armies of other nations who might attack a city without giving it an opportunity to surrender (compare 1 Samuel 11:1–3), God required the armies of Israel to grant a city opportunity to surrender without bloodshed before mounting a full-scale siege and destroying the city. In this context, God required that Israel spare the women and children from death, and their captors were to care for them (Deuteronomy 20:10–14). Only in the case of the depraved inhabitants of Canaan did God require total destruction.
The reason for the God-sanctioned war and destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan was the likely corruption of the moral and spiritual standards of Israelite society: “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16–18). This is important because God had chosen Israel to bear God’s self-revelation to the world — the task of making God known.
There is some discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments concerning warfare. While in the Old Testament God often used war as an instrument of His judgment, Jesus has shown that it is now a betrayal of the gospel to take up arms to defend or promote the interests of Christ. This discontinuity, however, is not absolute.1 There is also continuity, especially as we look at the New Testament’s picture of the Final Judgment and its form of warfare in which spiritual weapons demolish spiritual strongholds. God’s judgment of evil runs throughout the Bible, and war in the Old Testament is one outworking of this reality.
1. For further study, see Stanley N. Gundry, ed., Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).