The Holy War

Murder involves intentionally killing a human being. And the Ten Commandments prohibits murder. But not every case of intentionally killing a human being is murder. We have seen that killing in self-defence (Exodus 22:2-3) and the (proper) implementation of the death penalty (Genesis 9:6) are two such cases. We now consider killing in war, in particular, the battles involved in Israel’s exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan (which actually stretched beyond the time of Joshua to that of David, who also subdued neighboring nations to ensure that the Promised Land was secure). We call this series of battles the Holy War, and in so doing limit the concept of a “holy war” to a specific, non-repeatable, historical phenomenon.

Recall that the Abrahamic Covenant was God’s plan to redeem the world. This plan involves forming a nation from the descendants of Abraham, which turned out to be the Israelites, so that through Israel all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). Israel would then need a piece of land to become the nation God intended it to be. So God promised Abraham that his descendants would possess Canaan (Genesis 15:18-21). But before Abraham’s (more specifically Jacob’s) descendants could possess the Promised Land, Jacob’s family needed to be fruitful and multiply into a sizable nation (Genesis 35:11-12). To ensure that this happened in the shortest time possible they needed the secure haven that Egypt could provide (cf. Exodus 1:7).

We have seen that it was God who worked in and through Joseph to bring Jacob (also known as Israel) and his whole family into Egypt, where they multiplied into a nation. In view of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would possess Canaan, it was necessary to take the nation of Israel out of Egypt. And their eventual oppression and enslavement in Egypt made the Israelites willing to leave.

In fact the Exodus and subsequently the Conquest were the fulfilment of a specific promise God made to Abraham: “Know for certain that your descendants [Israelites] will be sojourners in a land not theirs [Egypt], where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But I will judge the nation whom they will serve as slaves; and afterward they will come out with great possessions…. Then in the fourth generation they shall return here [Canaan], for the iniquity of the Amorite [inhabitants of Canaan] is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16).

Hence the Exodus and the Conquest were ultimately for the redemption of the world. In other words, to fulfil His purpose for Israel and hence the world, God gave Israel temporary occupation of a piece of land within Egypt and later permanent occupation of the land of Canaan. The Exodus involved killing many Egyptians and the Conquest involved destroying the Canaanites. We will soon address the ethical problem this mass taking of human lives poses. The immediate issue is God unilaterally assigning or reassigning the use of land in Egypt and in Canaan.

This brings us back to Genesis 1:1, which we have presupposed from the very outset. If we bear this in mind, it is clear that there is no issue at all. For if God created the universe every piece of land on earth belongs to Him. In fact the stipulation in Leviticus 25 that on the Jubilee Year agricultural land that had been sold must be returned to the original owner, was based on the premise that God owns the land (see verse 23). And after all God’s plan for Israel was ultimately to bless the whole world.

As for the mass taking of human lives, again it is crucial to presuppose Genesis 1:1. For we have seen that if we accept, at least temporarily, Genesis 1:1 we would have no problem accepting the Biblical teaching that all life, including human life, is created by God. Hence human lives belong to God. Also (eventual) death for all human beings is God’s judgment on sin. Therefore life and death, including untimely death, is God’s prerogative (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). This is not to say that God would take away life without just cause or valid reason. God cannot violate His own holiness.

If we reject the teaching that our lives are in God’s hands, it does not change the reality that people do die and some die prematurely. But if we accept the teaching it enables us to make sense of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8), which are intended to cause us to fear God, which involves believing in Him (Ecclesiastes 3:14). And when we believe in Him the idea that our life is in God’s hands is reassuring.

In the case of the taking of Egyptian lives through the tenth plague and the destruction of Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea, the Egyptians not only enslaved and oppressed the Israelites, Pharoah also defied God by stubbornly refusing to let them leave. Pharoah could not give the excuse that he did not know he was defying the living God. For after the third plague his own magicians said to him, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). The fact that God gave Pharoah six more opportunities to repent through six more plagues before He unleashed the tenth plague as the last resort demonstrated God’s mercy. This deadly plague did result in Pharoah relenting (but not repenting) and the Israelites leaving with great possessions. As for the subsequent destruction of Phraoah’s army in the Red Sea it was the consequence of Pharoah’s renewed defiance of the living God and his continued attempt to thwart God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the world. His intention was to further enslave and oppress the Israelites.

The thorniest ethical problem in the entire Bible remains the reported blanket killing of not only men but also women and children in Canaan, which is specifically said to be in accordance with God’s instruction given through Moses (Joshua 10:40; 11:14-15). To understand this instruction we need to consider it in the context of the Mosaic Covenant as well as God’s promise to Abraham to bring his descendants back to Canaan after four hundred years (Genesis 15:13, 16).

The Mosaic Covenant was God’s plan to form a model nation, one that is in fellowship with Him. Thus the Promised Land was to become the Holy Land because the holy God would dwell tangibly in their midst through the Tabernacle. At times His holiness (glory) even filled the Tabernacle, making His tangible presence in the land and with the people unmistakable. As such the nation must be holy and be a civilization that is consistent with God’s will.

In our exposition on the Tabernacle we caught a glimpse of the holiness of God (what follows assumes familiarity with the exposition there). And we saw that the holiness of God is such that it consumes those in His presence who are morally or ritually defiled. When this does not happen or is delayed it is only because of His mercy. This means, before Canaan could become the Holy Land for a holy people it must be cleansed of whatever that is morally or ritually defiled. And the wickedness of the Canaanites included not only religious prostitution (cf. Deuteronomy 23:17-18) but also child sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 20:1-5). This was the primary reason the Canaanites and their altars had to be destroyed (see Deuteronomy 7:1-6).

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows that entire cities could be consumed by God’s holiness when the wickedness of the people reached an intolerable level. God’s holiness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it means God would not take away lives without just cause or valid reason. On the other hand it means He would do just that when there is just cause or valid reason, unless His mercy stops or delays Him. Otherwise God is violating His own holiness.

In other words, the Canaanites already deserved to be destroyed because of their wickedness regardless of whether God needed to clear a piece of land for Israel. Moses reminded the Israelites that God was giving them the land not because they were righteous but because the Canaanites were wicked (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). In fact God specifically told Abraham that his descendants could possess Canaan only after four hundred years because the inhabitants of Canaan were then not yet wicked enough (did not yet deserve) to be destroyed (Genesis 15:16). This was the explicit reason why the Israelites had to be in Egypt for four hundred years, though the implicit reason was that they also needed a secure haven in Egypt to grow into a sizable nation before possessing the Promised Land.

One may choose to deny that a Holy God who created the universe and humanity exists, but one may not choose to deny that if such a God exists He has the moral prerogative to execute the Holy War. If one accepts the Biblical account that recounts the destruction of the Canaanites one must also accept the Biblical account of what happened at Mount Sinai that reveals the existence of the Holy God and His holy purpose for Israel (see Covenant and Revelation). The Sinai account explains the Canaanite account. Why would anyone accept one Biblical account but reject another that is needed to explain it? So to take the Holy War out of its Biblical context deliberately and then use it to paint an ugly picture of God is blatant dishonesty.

And the charge that the destruction of the Canaanites was “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” is really unwarranted. For God also warned the Israelites that if they followed the ways of the Canaanites they would also suffer the consequences. In fact a further reason why the Canaanites needed to be destroyed was so that they might not influence the Israelites “to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods” (Deuteronomy 20:17-18), which would include religious prostitution and child sacrifice. Hence the judgment on the Canaanites had nothing to do with their race or ethnicity. It was because of their wickedness, which transcends race and ethnicity. And it turned out that because the Israelites failed to eradicate the Canaanites they were indeed influenced and suffered the horrible consequences, including the Exile.

God in fact commanded Israel through Moses that if the inhabitants of an Israelite city had indeed been influenced to worship foreign gods, they should do to the inhabitants of that city just as they were commanded to do to the inhabitants of the Canaanite cities (Deuteronomy 13:12-18). When moral and ritual defilement had taken root and became widespread in a city the inhabitants were to be destroyed. This was because within the Holy Land the holy God dwelled in their midst in a tangible manner. Again, if we have problems with this it simply means we have not understood adequately the holiness of God. But at least it is clear that the charge of genocide or ethnic cleansing is utterly baseless.

What about the killing of “innocent” infants? Sparing them while destroying their parents would not be a practical option. And given the extremely wicked culture of the Canaanites, which included child sacrifice, it would actually be better off for Canaanite infants to be spared the misery of growing up and living in such a morally depraved and self-destructive world (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).

There is also more to the issue than we can imagine. This brings us to the Second Commandment, which spells out that God would punish idol worshippers to the third and the fourth generations because they “hate Me” (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). Thus children would be punished together with their idolatrous parents. Again this must be understood within its Biblical context. The reference to the third and fourth generations means the entire household of an idol worshipper would be punished. For a household consists of three to four generations. And it was God who “visits the iniquity,” that is, it was God Himself who took the initiative to exact the punishment.

Actually God took the initiative to punish an entire household for other forms of rebellion against Him as well. In the case of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who rebelled against God by challenging the God-ordained leadership of Moses and Aaron, the earth opened up to swallow them and their households (Numbers 16:20-35). In the case of Achan, who rebelled against God by taking a spoil in Jericho, God alerted Joshua to the rebellion, singled out the culprit and authorized the execution (Joshua 7:10-15, 24-26). There was no human initiative involved at all.

And we have clear evidence that when God thus punished a household He did not do so indiscriminately. If we read only Numbers 16:20-35 we would assume that the entire household of Korah perished. But Numbers 26:11 qualifies that the sons of Korah did not die in the event. And their descendants were even credited with the composition of a number of Psalms (for instance Psalm 84). They, and presumably their wives and children if they had any, were not standing with their father when God opened up the ground to swallow the guilty. This means the God-fearing sons of Korah distanced themselves, even physically, from their father and his rebellion against God. In the case of the Canaanites, Rahab and her household were spared because she truly feared God and demonstrated it through risking her life to protect the two Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-21; 6:22-25).

It would take up too much space, and distract us from the theme of this exposition, to explain every text in the Old Testament that seems to suggest blatant injustice on God’s part. As we have shown in the exposition on Israelite Religion, when properly understood, laws in the Old Testament that seem unjust are actually not so. Similarly, the Holy War, which seems blatantly unjust when taken out of context, actually demonstrates the absolute holiness of God when understood in context. Again, what this means is that when reading a text that seems to suggest that God is unjust we need to give God the benefit of the doubt.

Labelling a war “holy” may seem inappropriate. For wars necessarily involve the mass taking of human lives. How can the brutal taking of human lives be holy? We have retained the use of the term “holy war” as applied to the Conquest (and the Exodus) partly because it is actually appropriate to do so in this (and only this) case, and partly to redeem the term from inappropriate use.

We now reiterate that the Holy War refers to a specific, non-repeatable, historical event. It involved God’s redemption of Israel as well as God’s judgment on the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Given the historical realities, the event necessarily involved the taking of human lives. How else could Israel leave Egypt? And how else could Israel possess Canaan? The historical event was holy because the goal was to set-apart (make holy) a nation and a land so that the holiness (glory) of God could be manifested in the land and through the nation (redemption). And the impetus was God’s consuming holiness against wickedness (judgment). So the war was holy not just because it was unmistakably God’s war (cf. Exodus 15:3; Joshua 5:13-15).

The Holy War was thus integral to God’s redemption of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. But, as we shall see, God’s redemption of the Church under the New Covenant does not involve forming a holy people in a holy land where God dwells in a tangible manner. Rather, God dwells within a holy people (the Church) through the Holy Spirit, regardless of where they are located. Hence the phenomenon of a holy war as presented above has no relevance to the Church.

The concept of a “holy war” must not be confused with that of a “just war,” which is not about fulfilling God’s redemptive plan. It is beyond the scope of this exposition to discuss the just war theory. Suffice it here to affirm that the Biblical principle of killing in self-defence applies beyond the individual level. And in principle, an offensive war amounts to state-sanctioned mass murder, without ruling out possible exceptions that must be judged on their own merits.