THE ETHICAL PROBLEM OF THE HOLY WAR 1
The Ethical Problem of the Holy War As Seen Primarily in the Book of Joshua
2 THE ETHICAL PROBLEM OF THE HOLY WAR “No enactment of man can be considered law unless it conforms to the law of God” -‐William Blackstone The Ethical Problem of the Holy War What are the first things that enter your mind when you hear the words genocide, decimation, extermination, or annihilation? Personally, I think of Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao, and Rwanda to name a few. This paper will discuss the ethical problems of the Holy War as told in the Biblical books of Joshua and Deuteronomy, and attempt to justify, what some would consider the heinous acts of cruelty similar to those of Hitler, Mao, and Rwanda. How Can We Reconcile a Good God to Such Bad Events? The root of the problem at hand could be labeled what scholars and theologians call “The Ban”, or more specifically, “Herem” ()חרם, literally, “cursed”. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (2764) defines Herem as an accursed dedicated thing, appointed to utter destruction, to be exterminated. A Biblical account of this is seen in Joshua 7:2, “when the Lord your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy [herem] them”.
The traditional attempts at justifying God’s command to Israel to lay waste
and utterly destroy Canaan can be broken up into several parts. The first of which I would like to discuss revolves around the intended purity of the covenant between God and Israel. Leviticus 18:3 makes this far from ambiguous by saying “You shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.” God has a pure, personal, and real covenant with Israel and
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he forbids it to be defiled by the wicked, sinful, and idolatrous lifestyles of the Canaanites. Thus, God requires absolute holiness among the Israelites. This can be summarized by the popular proverb “bad company corrupts good character”1. Not only had God commanded Israel to destroy the people of Canaan, but also the objects within Canaan by saying “Keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction.”2
Philip Jenson summarizes this example by saying “God’s demand for justice
and righteousness is worked out in the political life and death of nations.”3 Consequently, it may seem that the only way to secure the purity of Israel is to remove any potential stumbling blocks, i.e., the annihilation of the wicked Canaanites and their idolatrous objects.
The previous sentence leads me to address the next potential attempt at
justifying the conquests of Joshua, namely, God’s sole right and authority to carry out justice on the wicked any time He pleases – it just so happens to be in the time of Joshua that He decided to do so. We can recall Genesis 15:16 where God made it clear that He will wait “four more generations” to call Canaan to justice because their iniquity is “not yet complete”. What was the culmination of their wickedness? Bestiality, sodomy, child sacrifices and occult worship to name a few.
This is an indication that God did not act arbitrarily or randomly in
commanding the wars, but that He Himself operates in accordance with the very same “laws of justice” that are part of His nature. (I go so far as to say, humbly, that God had to wait until it was lawfully right to do so.) In other words, the Israelites 1 1 Corinthians 15:33 2 Joshua 6:18
3 Philip Jenson, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Grove Biblical Series 25 (Cambridge: Grove
Books, 2002), 17
4 THE ETHICAL PROBLEM OF THE HOLY WAR weren’t commanded to kill and slaughter innocent peoples, but that God used them as the divine instrument of justice against wicked peoples. Gary DeLashmutt poses a summarization of the existence of The Ban by saying “The main reason for “The Ban” was not that God was ‘playing favorites’ with Israel…” although Deuteronomy 7:7-‐8 might disagree, but that “…the primary reason for the "ban" was to execute his judgment on the Canaanites [for their wickedness].”4 Philip Jenson also concludes, “Just as the Assyrians will be God’s means of judgment on sinful Israel, so Israel is the medium for God’s punishment of these nations.”5
Furthermore, I believe God executing judgment on the Canaanites was the
means by which He chose to bring to fulfillment the earlier promises to the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 9:5 states, “It is not because of your righteousness… that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations… to accomplish what he swore to your fathers.” In this case, the means justified the end. As I noted previously, God chose to wait until the right time in which he could carry out his justice for the purpose of bringing Israel into the Promised Land. Recall the covenant God made with Abraham:
“I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourning’s, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:8) This is another one of the methods scholars and theologians
traditionally use to justify the conquests of Joshua. Furthermore, simply 4 DeLashmutt, Gary. "The Ban" Xenos Christian Felloship. 2011?. < http://www.xenos.org/essays/ban >. 5 Philip Jenson, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Grove Biblical Series 25 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002), 16.
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calling it an attempted justification falls short of its deeper purpose. Our God is a faithful God who does not break His promises, even in the midst of Israel’s (and our) sin. God promised that land to Israel and He would not renege on His promise. Finally, the previous justifications climax into what I believe is the primary reason for the Holy Wars; justifiable above all other reasons or examples, honoring God, rightfully so, in His throne, with dominion over the earth. In my opinion, The Holy War is God showing his sole divinity, authority and preeminence over the false gods of Canaan, and as an example for generations to come that “You shall have no other gods before me”6. God has zero tolerance for that command being disobeyed, and, as God, reserves the right to punish those who transgress that law. Jeph Halloway puts it nicely by saying “That God acts as the source and means of victory for Israel is an expression of his exclusive kingship over Israel”7. Thus, God receives the glory and honor – Israel was merely the tool.
Let’s Take Into Account Some Other Potential Opinions In the midst of the justification for the conquests of Israel, lies a seemingly convincing set of different perspectives. There is a fairly populous group of scholars who believe there is good evidence to admit that these horrific, genocidal conquests never even happened – at least not in the literal sense. Even if the fundamental 6 Exodus 20:3
7 Jeph Holloway, “The Ethical Dilemma of Holy War,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 41 (1998),
6 THE ETHICAL PROBLEM OF THE HOLY WAR majority dismisses this group, there could be a lot of validity, and, to be honest, concrete grounds for such views. For example, look at two specific passages: the first where God commands, and the second where Israel apparently obeys. In Deuteronomy 20:16 Israel was told, “in the cities of these peoples that the LORD is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave anything alive that breathes”, and in Joshua 11:11, “They struck every person who was in it with the sword, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed.” K. Lawson Younger, Jr. makes the point that if we viewed these passages literally, then we would also, in some sense, be obligated to view the words literally when we read about the “conquest” of France during World War II, or say that ‘Germany conquered France’8. He says, “The meaning is something like ‘the German army defeated the French army in battle and occupied France’, but it did not subjugate…”9 nor did it completely exterminate everyone. This could lead us to understand that the conquests may not have happened literally, but may have been a literary hyperbole. The terms everyone, no one, and every are absolutes that many historical (and literal pieces) use as exaggerations to emphasize the statement.
In addition to the hyperbolic nature of Joshua and Deuteronomy, it can be
said that many people “naturally read [Joshua and Deuteronomy] against the background of conquests made by European settlers and colonial invaders in the
8 K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near
Eastern and Biblical History Writing, JSOTSup 98 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1990), 242-‐244. 9 Ibid, 244.
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Americas, Africa, and Asia.”10 In other words, we could admit that our own social and political framework is at fault for our misinterpretation of Scripture. Perhaps it was never meant to be taken literally – who are we to assume it is? Richard D. Nelson says that Joshua is “describing an idealistic and theoretical” explanation of Israel’s living in Canaan, “not factual history”11. To put this example to practice, Nelson might say that Israel’s dramatic telling blazing wars, glorious battles, fallen kings, and conquered lands are nothing more than an attempt at scaring off would-‐be invaders, and to give Israel a self proclaimed fame on the field of battle.12 In conclusion, if we combine archaeological evidence with hyperbole and literary exaggerations, it could be somewhat safe to say that Israel never completely annihilated Canaan at all, but emerged from within the land, rather than the outside.13 Evaluation, Assessment, and the Answer to the Problem At Hand
Evaluation of the previous attempts at justifying (or dissecting) the Holy
Wars of Joshua and the Israelites can go a long way in discovering more than just whether they actually took place, or trying to prove God’s inculpability. I admit, whether they did, or didn’t happen the way The Bible tells us, or whether our interpretation of the texts leads us to two different conclusions, there are some clear lessons from the passages. 10 Richard D. Nelson, The Historical Books (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 81. 11 ibid.
12 ibid., 82 13 ibid.
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In my evaluation, I have separated the justifications into two primary
categories of intended purposes, namely, theological and practical (not to say theology isn’t practical, or vise versa). In the first category, theological, I have included God’s command to Israel to subjugate and conquer Canaan for the goal of acquiring the Promised Land. Although this may seem like it exists for practical purposes, we have seen above that God did not bring them into the Promised Land because of their own righteousness, but because God made a promise to their forefathers. In upholding the promise to the patriarchs, God is making Himself known as a faithful God that does not waver regardless of circumstances. He also makes clear that He is sovereign, and His ultimate plan is not bound to the decisions or sins of man. If God were a god that broke promises, the future promises of Salvation and eternal glory in Christ would be void and untrustworthy.
I also would venture to include God’s display of His own power in the lives of
the Israelites and Canaanites to be a measure by which he will act to the entire world for generations to come. Israel is a representation of those who, today, are the spiritual Israel, and Canaan could be seen as a representation of the reprobate. Just like in Joshua, God will one day bring His people into the “Promised Land” of heaven, whereby committing the lost to judgment – all for His glory. On the other hand, in the practical category, God requires of Christians to be holy, righteous and blameless before Him. He tells us there is no communion between the light and the dark, and to not be a part of wickedness in any sense of the term. This is a wonderful parallel, albeit more “spiritual”, to that which He commanded the Israelites to Ban any Canaanite or their objects. Finally, the
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judgment of the Canaanites is a “gentle reminder” that those who put a god before Him will be judged accordingly, and likewise to that of the land of Canaan. Finally, my solution to the claims of the Ethical Problem of the Holy War, and the question “Why would a good God command war and genocide as seen in the Old Testament” would be fairly simple. Whether literal or literary, God requires that we abstain from impurity and unrighteous acts. In the same way Christ will come again to judge the wicked and call the righteous to salvation, so God did to the Canaanites and the Israelites. He is a faithful and just God who does not waver in His righteousness or His glory. I conclude with a quote from Philip Jenson. “War may be unavoidable… it is an aspect of a fallen world that God purposes to redeem… God’s desire to save the world through the descendants of Abraham makes the wars required to establish that nation a necessary evil”.14 Word Count: 2162
14 Philip Jenson, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Grove Biblical Series 25 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002), 16.
1 THE ETHICAL PROBLEM OF THE HOLY WAR 0 Bibliography Jenson, Philip. The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Grove Biblical Series 25. Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002. Halloway, Jeph. The Ethical Dilemma of Holy War. Southwestern Journal of Theology 41. 1998. Nelson, Richard D. The Historical Books. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998 Younger, Jr., Lawson K. Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing. Sheffield: JSOT, 1990. DeLashmutt, Gary. The Ban. Xenos Christian Fellowship: xenos.org, 2011