War in the Old Testament

Several years ago, I preached a sermon on War in the Old Testament.  To this day, I continue to have conversations about whether or not God is violent, and whether or not God condones violence.

Below is my sermon.  It’s by all means not exhaustive, but I still find it to be a good start to understanding some of the more troubling aspects of the Bible.


War in the Old Testament is one of the biggest theological questions we have, but one I we don’t put a lot of time to.  I think we just ignore it.

But some people don’t. They write books on it.  They offer courses on it.  Us?  We’re giving it a solid 20 minutes.

So because of that, I am going to be using some incredibly broad strokes today.

So if you’re thinking:  Hey!  He didn’t talk about this, or that, or he missed that.  My answer is yes.  I did.

Okay, let’s start.

War in the Old Testament.  One of the biggest problems people have with this whole Christianity thing.  We all get Jesus, “love your neighbour” thing, but what do we do with this “God who orders the destruction of entire cities” thing?

Well, the first step, is tea parties.

A typical scene in my house involves me laying on the couch, either reading or sleeping.

And then Arianna calls from across the room.

Daddy.

I don’t respond.

“Daddy.”

“Daddy!”

“Kyle!  Look at me!”

“What?”

“Tea Party.”

“What?”

“Tea Party. Come.”

“No.  I’m reading.”

“Daddy Tea Party.”  And then she’ll grab my hand and pull til I go sit on the little chair that’s the size of one of my butt cheeks.

“Daddy drink.”

And so I take this little cup, and we cheers, and we have a tea party. And then we pour some more, and then we give the teddy bear and the doll some water, and I end up loving every minute of it.

One day, I was bored of having a tea party, so I said:  “Arianna, let’s wrestle.”

She looked at me, and then I grabbed her and started jumping on her and tickling her and laughing out loud.

Two minutes later, we had stopped to gather our breath, and then she looked at me, smile.

“Tea Party?”

This is the foundation for war in the Old Testament.

I choose to work with Arianna in ways that she will understand.  I work with Arianna at her level.

We don’t watch Modern Family or Game of Thrones together.  We watch Caillou and Toopy and Binoo.

We don’t read Lord of the Rings.  We read Murmel Murmel Murmel and the Potty Book.

We don’t have chicken cordon bleu.  We have cheese and peanut butter buns and cucumbers with dip.

I don’t teach her a zone defence for Ultimate Frisbee and make her run laps.  We stack the pylons.

I choose to work with Arianna in ways that she will understand.

Eventually, she will grow up and learn.  But in the mean time, I will put up with Toopy and Binoo, because I love Arianna.

In order to understand War in the Old Testament, we have to understand that God chooses to work with people.

Every time God has a good idea, he doesn’t just snap his fingers.  God asks: “Who can I get to do this?”  And the answer?  Humans.

God makes a beautiful garden.  Who is supposed to tend it?  People.

God makes all these animals?  Who names them?  People.  He marches them in front of Adam.

Hmmmm…. Giraffe.

This one? Hippopotamus.

This one?  Cat. And then God says:  Oh, that was a mistake.  That’s not supposed to be there. (I’m here all day folks).

God works with people.  God partners with us.

And the thing about partnering, is that you work with what you’re given.  I am given Teehouse TV and Dora the Explorer colouring books, so I do that.   If your parents are in a nursing home, you join the Resthaven sing-a-longs.   If you’re the parent of a teenager who loves volleyball, you go to the gym, even if you’re watching grade 7’s bump, bump, bump.  Even if the life of your loved one only a fraction of what it could be, or even if you hate it, you still go along for the ride.

God partners with humans.

We read God choosing to work with Abraham, telling him that he will bless Abraham and make him a great nation, and that this nation will then be a blessing to the world.

Right there, God chooses to work with a people.  And if you work with people, you have to work in terms they’ll understand.

So if you were to make a nation that will bless the world, what’s the first thing you need?

Population.  You can’t be a nation with only 13 people in it.

And after you have people, you need land.  You need resources to feed your population.

And so, we read about Abraham walking along, going where God is sending him.  ,

And so they end up in Egypt.  First as friends, through Joseph, and then as slaves, where Pharoah is murdering their children.

And it is here where we read about how God fights in the Old Testament.  Scholars call it “Holy War,” where God does the fighting.  If you know the story of Moses, you will know that over a million Hebrews were slaves, building pyramids, and then walked out of the Egypt without raising a finger.  They did not fight.  God did.

Exodus 14:13-14 – Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today.  The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

God does the fighting.  And God chooses to work in terms that humans understand.  Pharaoh wouldn’t let the slaves go until the plagues got worse and worse.  He finally relented when his firstborn died.  Not ideal, but neither is Toopy and Binoo.

So now you’re saying:  “Kyle, that’s fine that God did the fighting in the story of Moses.  But after that, they went to Canaan and did horrific acts of violence.”

Yes.  Yes they did.

We read in Joshua 6 that after the walls fell down in the battle of Jericho, we read in verse 21:  “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.”

This God of love would order that?

Okay, this is where it gets fun.

Back to the beginning.  God partners with humans.  And thus has to work with what’s available.

The Israelites have left Egypt, with their number in the millions.  They need a place to go.  They need land.  Being a middle class accountant or teacher living in suburbia wasn’t an option.    And so they go off to Canaan to live.  The only problem is that there are already people there.  So they essentially wipe them off the map.

But if God needs a nation, and a nation needs land, why couldn’t the Israelites just hold hands and sing kumbaya?  Why couldn’t they form a multi-cultural society like we have now?  Why couldn’t they just live in peace and harmony?

There are a few things going on here.

The first.  Thousands of years ago, the worldview was this:  Kill or be killed.  That was it.  There was no multi-cultural policy.    There was no Folklarama.  If you didn’t kill your enemies, they would kill you.  There was a deep, deep tribalism that I don’t think we really understand today.

And by God choosing to get involved in the lives of the Israelites, he chose to get involved in their land claims, and thus he chose to get involved in their wars, and thus he chose to get involved in their policy on war.  Kill or be killed.  And when you do kill them, make sure that they can’t come back and kill you in the future.  Scorched Earth policy.  Brutal.  But effective.

Remember:  God partners with humans, so he works with what’s available.

And there’s another piece of the puzzle… (I emailed one of my profs for some articles on the Canaanites, and he sent me back a fascinating read).

The premise is that we don’t really understand how evil the Canaanites were.  Through our 2012 eyes, we just can’t really comprehend how they lived.

I’ll give you the highlights.

Child Sacrifice.  Common.  Encouraged.  Their idol was made of metal with his hands were outstretched for the children.

Incest.  Common.  Encouraged.

Sexual Assault.  Common. Encouraged.  Gender or age didn’t matter, as long as they were weaker than you.

Bestiality.  Common. Encouraged.  The Hittites, a different people, had rules.  If you ended up with a Canaanite sheep, you were supposed to kill it, because you couldn’t have it hanging around your family.

So now, if your neighbours were as evil as the Canaanites, what would you do?  Can we live nicely here in Steinbach if they’re living like that in Blumenort?

Well, what do we do?  Call the police?  There were no police.  Put them in jail?  There were no jails back then.  Non-violent revolution?  What’s non-violence?   It’s kill or be killed.

So the Israelites took over the land and lived in relative peace.

But then there are some other fascinating war policies going.

During the Conquest and also in the book of Judges, there is no central government, no king, no Democrats or Republicans or Stephen Harpers or Justin Trudeaus.  And there was no standing army.  So when there’s trouble, someone, whom they called a Judge, would rise up and declares they have to attack someone or defend this city.  But who goes?

Well, the people who are available.  In our context, that would mean Kyle, Mel, and the person sitting next to you in the pew.  Now, here’s a question.  Do you want to go to war with me beside you?  No.  Because I’m not very good.  You’d rather have a trained soldier.  But during the time of the Judges, Israelites didn’t have any.  So not having a standing army was a deterrent to war.  You relied on God and only had to fight when you absolutely had to, because you’d have Kyle Penner in your corner, and you didn’t really want to have Kyle Penner in your corner.

And here’s another one.  When a battle was won, and they were supposed to kill everyone, women and children, young and old, do you think that people were excited about it?

Great.  I get to go to war with a bunch of skinny office workers, and I get to kill women and children and older people.  Sounds like fun.  At least I am going to get rich off of it by keeping their cattle and gold.

Well, no.  When the Israelites enacted the ban of destroying everything, the livestock was killed and the temple got the gold.  The soldiers went home with nothing.  There were no spoils of war.

So, untrained soldiers, killing defenceless people with no spoils of war.

Do you really want to go to war?  I mean… really?

But Kyle, what about King David and his mighty men?    There were standing armies and they got rich.

Yes.  So after a while, the Israelites wanted a king. They got Saul, who didn’t work out so well, and then King David.

Yes.  He fought a lot of wars.  And he was remarkably violent.

But even in there, you have a couple of funny stories showing the intent of God’s work.

Remember… God works with what he’s given.

God did not allow the Israelites to have chariots. Why?  Chariots were the tanks of the day.  They were the most modern equipment available.  The Israelite army were always a few centuries behind in modern warfare equipment.  That not only acted as a war deterrent, but also made sure that they were “trusting God” with their decisions.

At one point, King David ordered a census of all his fighting men.  He wanted to know how strong his army was.  Mistake.  God was angry.  Are you relying on God or the strength of your army?

And in addition to this, the king wasn’t supposed to be rich and store all sorts of precious metals, or have many wives. Why?  It’s hard to wage war without money, and wives were used as political allies.  No money, no strategic alliances, less wars.

Yes, the violence still happened.  But it’s become less and less clear that God wanted it to.  It sort of seems that God was always using what was available, and taking it one step this way away from the violence.

And then, after years and years of the kings, the Assyrians came and destroyed the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonians came and destroyed the Southern Kingdom and took all the Israelites into Babylon as slaves.

So they were sitting by the rivers of Babylon, and they realized something.

It didn’t work.  This entire system of living by the sword didn’t work.  Sure, there were moments of glory.  But if it worked so well, why were they slaves in a foreign nation?

Fast forward about 700 years, and Jesus enters the picture, and here, for the first time in the history of civilization, you have this invitation to love your enemies and sharing meals with them.  Kill or be killed was replaced with love.   Violence was replaced with non-violence.  And death was no longer the final word; Resurrection was.

So… What does this mean for us today?

I’m going to give you some questions to ask around the lunch table today.

What are our spoils of war?

What are our spoils of war?  Who gets rich off of war?   Do we benefit from this?  (Think salaries, oil, pension funds, military-industrial complex).    Should we benefit from war?

Do we know more about violence and non-violence than they did thousands of years ago? 

Do we believe that we can solve conflict without violence?  Have Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, made a difference?  Do we believe in non-violent crisis intervention?  Why do we not allow our kids to bring violent weapons to school on Halloween?  And if we know more, does that change how we look at solving conflict?

I choose to watch Toopy and Binoo and have tea parties with Arianna.

And I’ll end with quote my Old Testament prof from CMU, Pierre Gilbert:

“God’s involvement in war in the Old Testament reveals exactly the same thing. It does not suggest that God is essentially violent in character. On the contrary, his willingness to intervene and participate in human history, a history profoundly and irrevocably tainted by sin, broadcasts his infinite love for humanity.

This concept should fill us with hope. God’s unconditional commitment to Israel in its historical situation, with all of its limitations, including the necessity to use war, teaches us two things:

1. Even today, God’s project carries on: God still has a purpose for humanity as a whole and for each one of us.

2.  God is profoundly and unswervingly committed to partnering with us in full recognition of the human condition.

The greatest proof of this unconditional intent towards us is found in the historical appearance of Jesus Christ as a man, in his life, his death, and his resurrection. There lies our hope.”

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