Some might erroneously think that “God & warfare” are mutually exclusive terms. But only those who know little about the Bible would make that claim. In both Testaments we see that there is a place for warfare, for fighting, and for the use of force to achieve certain good ends in a fallen world.
Thus God has set up governments and police forces to help bring about a modicum of peace and safety in a disordered world, and he uses parents – including their superior physical strength – to help raise children in the way they should go. Sure, both sorts of governance can be abused and misused, but God has given delegated authority to both.
Nonetheless, many believers when discussing contemporary conflicts and issues, including the current situation between Israel and Hamas, will say that we have to ‘move beyond violence’ or we must ‘renounce killing and find a better way’ and the like. Well, yes, sometimes that is true. But at other times it clearly is not.
A few things must be said here. Sure, generally speaking, talk is better than fighting. That is an ideal. But in a fallen world this is not always possible, and therefore God has ordained the institution of civil government to maintain order and punish wrongdoers. Sometimes this can be done by means of talk and negotiation, but it also may well entail the use of coercion and force.
Part of the problem here is that some folks confuse violence with the use of force. The former term involves more destructive elements, including deliberately seeking to hurt or damage or kill someone or something. The use of force is a more positive term and does not usually entail such intentions. This is easy enough to illustrate.
If a toddler is harshly banging a toy on another toddler, and I grab his arm to get him to stop, I have used force, but not with evil intent. I was not being violent. If a policeman apprehends and handcuffs a thief, he is using force, but not necessarily resorting to violence. Armed conflicts also involve the use of force, but may not always involve violence.
Finally, it is God himself who is described – and worshipped – as a man of war – as a warrior. Two translations of Exodus 15:3 demonstrate this:
“The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name.” ESV
“The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.” NIV
God is praised for being such, and for teaching his people to also become brave warriors:
You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me.
– Psalm 18:39
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle!
– Psalm 24:8
Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
– Psalm 144:1
But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior;
so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.
They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced;
their dishonor will never be forgotten.
– Jeremiah 20:11
You are my war club, my weapon for battle— with you I shatter nations, with you I destroy kingdoms, with you I shatter horse and rider, with you I shatter chariot and driver.
– Jeremiah 51:20-21
And military imagery is used throughout the New Testament, as in Ephesians 6:10-18 where Paul discusses spiritual warfare. If God was totally opposed to all military and police activity, and even to the use of force, as some Christian pacifists believe, he was being pretty careless in his choice of wording throughout the Bible.
And then we have the book of Revelation which is full of not just military imagery but actual military actions and activities as Christ returns as a conquering king, subduing his enemies. There is also the reality of hell and future punishment of the wicked. So it is very difficult to make God out to be a peace-loving hippy who would never harm a fly.
But I will finish this piece by looking at one quite interesting passage. We have at least one entire chapter devoted to warfare and rules of combat – Deuteronomy 20. In the twenty verses found there we have instructions God had given to Israel as to how they are to fight.
Two things can be said at the outset. The context makes it clear that this is specifically about how Israel is to proceed when taking the nations of Canaan. As this was a specific, one-off event, we can take general principles from this chapter, but perhaps not use it as a blueprint for all other wars and battles.
But Deut. 20 also makes it clear that God not only is involved in warfare, but that he commands it, he directs it, and he offers guidelines for it. Warfare can be a morally licit enterprise in other words if done in the right way under right conditions. And millennia of just war thinking has helped to develop these and related principles.
The reader can have a look at what is said in this chapter, but here I will offer a bit of commentary on it. As noted, this chapter is not to be seen as offering us a detailed manual for military operations and the like. But it does offer various cautions and constraints as the Israelites go in to possess Canaan. It seeks to humanise warfare and put limits upon it.
What Raymond Brown says in his commentary nicely ties in with what Israel at this very moment is going through:
Israel’s geographical location exposed its people to constant danger. The land was hemmed in on one side by the Mediterranean Sea, on the other by mountainous desert. Those who journeyed from Egypt in the south to the Assyrian and Babylonian nations in the north were normally compelled to travel through Canaan. Israel’s conquest of the land was regarded as an act of divine judgment on its inhabitants for their persistent evil and, as we have seen, there was to be no compromise with their idolatry and its worshippers (16-18). The regulations given in this chapter look beyond the initial conquest to future times when, for their own safety and security, they will be compelled to go out to war against their oppressors.
Although conflicts of this kind would be both varied and (in a sinful world) inevitable, there was likely to be one common factor in Israel’s military encounters — they would be totally outnumbered. Here is the advice and help they need for those many occasions when they will meet an army greater than yours.
That is certainly relevant to the situation we find Israel in today. Chris Wright reminds us about “the degree of humaneness and restraint in Deuteronomy’s laws of war, which is often overlooked in generalized criticisms of ‘OT violence’.” He continues:
Secondly, one must be careful to set the whole issue of war in the OT in the theological context in which it is clearly set in Deut. It is seen not merely as a matter of Israel’s supremacy over the nations (on the contrary, the reverse was usually the case in military terms, cf. 20:1), but Yahweh’s supremacy over all other gods and as the exercise of Yahweh’s legitimate moral judgment on human wickedness in the context of God’s overall sovereignty in history.
Lastly, Ajith Fernando ties together the reality of physical warfare with that of spiritual warfare:
Preparing for war is necessary for any nation. God needed to give rules for the conduct of war for the new nation of Israel. When we go to war we do not discard principles. Military personnel cannot separate their religious life from their military life. For Christians, military life is part of their religious life. To us today this passage can play a dual role. It gives guidelines for the conduct of war, but it also gives guidelines on how we should face other battles that we face. The Christian life is often described using battle language (2 Corinthians 10:3, 4; Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7). We can learn something about God’s approach to the battles we encounter in life by looking at his rules for war given in Deuteronomy 20.
Bill Muehlenberg teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. His independent blog, Culture Watch, has over 5,000 articles commenting on the major cultural, social and political issues of the day. Bill's podcast is exclusively produced for Good Sauce readers and fans.
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