Holy War is not for Everyone

The holy wars of Israel present a major objection to Christianity for many people these days, particularly in the wake of the religious terrorism of 7/11.

Now, regular readers would be aware that I interpret scripture Christocentrically, and hence question the discipleship value of any Old Testament interpretation that does not have Christ in view. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring the Old Testament on its own merits, for sometimes we even get the ancient Israelites wrong.

With this in mind, I would like to draw your attention to an article on the Canaanite Genocide by Andy Woods. These quotes in particular:

Israel never engaged in holy war beyond the land that God had given them in the Abrahamic Covenant. Genocide was to be limited only to the consecrated land (Deut 20:16). According to Lohfink, “The war of Deuteronomy 20:1-18…limits the chērem strictly to the situation of occupation and the inhabitants of the promised land.” In fact, Israel was specifically forbidden to conquer adjacent territories since God had already given them to other peoples (Deut 2:4-5, 18-23).

Holy war as expressed in Deuteronomy, therefore, would not have been intended to “propagate the faith,” the commonly assumed purpose of holy war envisioned in the West. It was not outward looking and had no interest in seeking converts, either through physical force or through persuasion…The concept of deuteronomic holy war, then, was quite limited geographically and could only exist in relation to a particular locale consecrated to the survival of its own religio-cultural expression.

To repeat, Yahweh did not order the Israelites to exterminate all Gentiles but only the Canaanites.

That still leaves a lot of unanswered questions, for sure, but I think its important to have appreciation of the limits of the holy wars of Israel, and thus, some of the limits to their contemporary application (even leaving Jesus aside).

4 thoughts on “Holy War is not for Everyone

  1. Interesting point, Matt. I do agree, however, that it still raises a lot of questions, like why even the Canaanites were chosen for mass genocide and had their land given to someone else.
    Of course, my bigger problem with applying the Old Testament stories to the modern conflict in Israel. Now, I don’t want the news every day so I’m willing to admit I might have missed it, but I haven’t heard about any pillars of fire leading one side or the other into battle or any other miraculous signs from God. If that ever happens, I’ll gladly address my questions about the situation directly to God and even argue whether I think He’s doing the right thing (yes, I really am that brazen). But until then, I’m going to question anyone who says that God is in their side, that they’re doing God’s will, or in any other way they might invoke His name for the sake of their cause so long as the promotion of their cause involves the killing of another. Especially if the underlying implication is that God’s okay with that killing, or worse, endorses of it.


  2. Mt 5:38 “you have heard it was said [by Moses], `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Bit I say to you, Do not…”
    Mt 5:48 “you have heard it said [by Moses], `You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”.
    It seems Jesus was at odds with Moses in these things.
    Who was more in line with God’s will, Moses or Jesus?
    If Jesus had been there when the genocides of Canaanites and others occurred, would his instructions to the Mosaic Hebrew refugees from Egypt have been different?
    I somehow don’t see Jesus condoning genocide against anyone. Epecially helpless women, children, babies, the elderly, the disabled, the poor and their herd animals, irrespective of what race, tribe or ethnicity they came from.
    Something is desperately wrong with the Mosaic thinking and justification for it. Then they wrote the history “as God’s unchallengable, literal Word, direct from His mouth”. So who is to question it?


  3. In my opinion any and every one who uses the term “holy”-war in 2011 should wash their mouth out with strong lye soap. Regardless of which time and place the referred to war occurred.


  4. I can understand why you have strong feelings about such language. Many injustices have been “justified” in the name of “just war” and many attrocities have been “sanctified” in the name of “holy war”.
    Let me toss some tables though. I think the holiest war ever waged was the one Jesus faught against the Roman centurians and Jewish elders. The war he won through loving without limits. The problem is not that some seek holy war, but that they take Moses (and more often Satan) as their model of holiness over Christ. They misconstrue the less holy as the more holy and the more holy as the less holy. To call the Crucades “holy wars” is blaspheme.


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