Is a War Ever Holy?
Why did God order a ruthless military campaign?
Joshua 11:6 The LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, because by this time tomorrow I will hand all of them, slain, over to Israel.”
Holy war. Ironically, the term applies to the most vicious, bloody wars. And often, far too often, Christians have been at the heart of such holy wars.
There is something irrational and even repulsive about a holy war. It harnesses all the best energies of religion for one of the ugliest acts of human nature. And yet anyone who reads the Bible cannot ignore the holy wars in the Old Testament.
Whole books have been written about the problem, and no brief article can begin to cover the issues. But modern readers need some background to help understand why a fierce holy war is presented in such a good light.
A Land Promised to the Israelites
The Israelites’ fighting style fit the harsh pattern of warfare in that day. Contemporary Egyptian and Assyrian reports boasted of mass executions, torture and the systematic razing of cities. But God’s involvement raises unique questions. He personally ordered the destruction of seven Canaanite nations, with no survivors. Why?
The Old Testament makes clear that the Canaanites were not being uprooted on a sudden whim. God had promised the land to the Israelites over 400 years before Joshua. He had called one man, Abraham, to found a nation of chosen people. He repeated those promises often (see Genesis 12:1–3; 15:5–18; 17:2–8; 26:3,23–24; 28:13–14) and finally called the Israelites out of Egypt to take over the promised land. Almost from the beginning Canaan was a vital part of God’s plan.
Israel’s inheritance, however, meant kicking out the Canaanites. How could innocent people simply be pushed aside, or killed? In answer to this question, the Bible makes clear that the Canaanites were not “innocent.” Through their long history of sin, they had forfeited their right to the land.
Four hundred years before Joshua, God had told Abraham that his descendants would not occupy the land until the sin of its inhabitants had “reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:16). Later, just days before the onset of Joshua’s campaign, Moses stated, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you” (Deuteronomy 9:5).
Historians have uncovered plenty of evidence of this wickedness. Canaanite temples featured prostitutes, orgies and human sacrifice. Relics and plaques of exaggerated sex organs hint at the immorality that characterized Canaan.
Canaanite gods, such as Baal and his wife Anath, delighted in butchery and sadism. Archaeologists have found great numbers of jars containing the tiny bones of children sacrificed to Baal. Families seeking good luck in a new home practiced “foundation sacrifice.” They would kill one of their children and seal the body in the mortar of the wall. In many ways, Canaan had become like Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible records that God has patience with decadent societies for a time, but judgment inevitably follows. For Sodom and Gomorrah it took the form of fire and brimstone. For Canaan it came through Joshua’s conquering armies. Later, God let his own chosen people be ravaged by invaders as punishment for their sins. The judgment pronounced on Canaan seems severe, but no more severe than what was later inflicted on Israel itself.
The Contamination Problem
The Israelites could not simply settle down as new neighbors among existing Canaanite cities. From the time when the tribes had made a golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 32), Israelites had shown a fatal weakness to infection from outside. They seemed particularly susceptible to sins of sex and idolatry, Canaan’s national specialties.
Israel’s later history offers a negative proof of why God commanded utter destruction of the Canaanites. The damning phrase in Joshua, “the Israelites did not drive out the people,” (Joshua 13:13) hints at trouble to come, and the very next book, Judges, tells of the devastating results. The Israelites slid to one of their lowest levels because they had not fulfilled the original mission of cleansing the land of impure elements.
A Struggle Beyond Nations
Looking back at this period of time, we tend to see the battles of Joshua as national or racial struggles: he Israelites versus the people of Canaan. But the Bible presents the warfare as a wider struggle: one between those who followed God and those who opposed him.
When God judged groups, as he judged the world’s inhabitants in Noah’s day or those of Sodom and Gomorrah, those few who remained faithful to him found a way of escape. And in Joshua one bright story shines out: the story of Rahab, a non-Israelite. A typical Canaanite who worked as a professional prostitute, she nevertheless learned to fear and then trust the God of Israel. She escaped the fall of Jericho. Furthermore, she went on to marry a leading Israelite and become one of the ancestors of the Messiah himself, Jesus. Rahab claimed that others in her city of Jericho had melted in fear for 40 years, waiting for the judgment of the God of Israel (see Joshua 2:9–11). Yet only she took the further step of seeking help. If others in Canaan had repented and turned to God, they might well have escaped punishment, as Rahab did.
Holy Wars Today
One fact about “holy war” is very clear. We cannot argue from a war specifically commanded by God in Joshua to any national situation today. In the Old Testament, God was dealing primarily with one particular nation, the Israelites, for a stated purpose. When the Messiah finally emerged out of that nation, everything changed.
Jesus’ followers all lived in the same territory captured by Joshua, the “promised land.” But four times, in his very last words, Jesus commanded his disciples to go out, away from Jerusalem, into all the world (see, for example, Matthew 28:19). Go, he told them, not as conquering armies but rather as bearers of the Good News that applies to all people, all races, all nations.
Anyone who looks to the book of Joshua for rationalization of a “holy war” must also look ahead to Jesus. Although on a holy crusade, he chose against violent means. In fact, he chose suffering and death. Nothing in the New Testament gives consolation to a religious warrior.
What arguments have you heard Christians use for or against wars?