The biblical passage for this past Sunday’s sermon included the following:
“And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children.” (Deuteronomy 3:6)
The topic of biblical holy war, where we are told that God fights for his people, is a difficult one. Many people can’t accept a God who would act like this, and so reject Christianity because of it.
But while we can acknowledge the difficulty of these passages, we need to do a little more work to understand what’s going on here, before we write the biblical God off as an evil tyrant.
Here are six factors to keep in mind regarding passages like this one.
1. Warfare was a part of life in this time. Part of what it meant to simply survive as a people group was to fight other people groups who were either currently plotting to destroy you or would most certainly one day destroy you. Being Switzerland wasn’t an option.
And so when we read biblical accounts of war, and of God using wars to accomplish his purposes, this isn’t so much telling us what God thinks about war, as it is telling us what life was like in this time. Just as he does today, God uses the experiences and events of everyday life to engage with and teach his people.
2. God was using the Israelites to justly punish the sin of the nations they were attacking. These aren’t just random nations that God is choosing to wipe out so that Israel can have a home. These are nations in which evil has reached such a level that God could not just sit back and let them go. His concern for righteousness and justice leads him to punish them.
In this situation, Israel is his instrument for bringing justice to the Ammorites. And yet in other situations, God used another nation to bring justice to rebellious Israel. So God isn’t showing favoritism here. God is showing justice, and He uses various nations to bring it about.
3. God was protecting the Israelites from being drawn into idolatry, and thus receiving his judgment. In Deuteronomy 20, God tells the Israelites that they are to treat the cities far away from them less harshly than the cities near to them. Why? Because the cities near to them are more likely to influence them and lead them into idolatry.
And this is not just a hypothetical situation. The Israelites had often turned to worshipping idols rather than the Creator God, and often this was due to the influence of the nations around them. And when they did this, it rightly angered God, and led to his punishment of them.
4. Israel existed as a theocracy at this time. This means that they existed both as a political entity and as a religious entity. And God was the head of both, often leading the people through His chosen human leaders.
The reason this is relevant is because no nation today can claim this position (at least with biblical authority). God had a specific purpose for the nation of Israel, and worked among them in way unlike any other nation (before or after).
Today, God’s people is the church universal, a entity that spans all nations and all people groups. It is in and through the church that God primarily works today.
Which means that the concept of holy war, as in one nation having a right from God to go to war against another nation, is no longer valid. No political nation today is God’s unique vessel to reach the world. God’s people is the church.
5. Our response to these passages is likely influenced by our time and culture. We should consider how our culture has influenced our views of who God is or ought to be. People in different times and cultures haven’t struggled to come to terms with God’s justice, judgment, and wrath, like we often do.
For example, a number of the Psalms look back on God-won victories like this and then burst into worship for his goodness. Accounts like these were not philosophical problems to wrestle with, but a clear demonstration both of God’s power and goodness.
Likewise, in the book of Jonah, rather than having a problem with God’s judgment of an evil nation, Jonah has a problem with God’s mercy towards an evil nation when they repent. Jonah wants God’s vengeance, and is upset about His mercy.
So we should consider that our emotional responses to things are influenced by our culture, and are not always trustworthy. It’s okay to wrestle through stuff, and try to understand it the best we can, but God’s word and truth should carry more weight in this than our emotions.
For example, when reading passages like this, we should remember that God’s word tells us that everything that God does is good. It is a great practice to consider how God’s justice and wrath display his goodness just as much as his mercy and love. To consider how, if he did not justly punish sin, how He would be less good.
6. Lastly, we need to consider our relational position to God’s mighty power. Here’s what I mean: We tend to respond to passages like this, ones that challenge our view of God, as if we were passive observers. Like a bunch of armchair philosophers sitting at a distance and judging God.
But none of us are merely passive observers of God’s mighty power. Rather, we are all on the receiving end of God’s mighty power, either in the form of redemption or of judgment.
By nature, God’s power is against us in judgment. On our own, we are enemies of God and He will judge us in perfect justice on the last day. This ought to rightly cause us to fear.
But in his mercy, God has put forth Jesus to receive the judgment that we deserved. On the cross, Jesus bore the wrath and judgment that meant to be poured out on us. Far from being an evil tyrant who will sacrifice anyone and everyone for his purposes, God sacrificed himself for our sake. He wrote his own death into the script of history.
And when we run to Jesus to find mercy from judgment, we find that our relationship to God’s power changes. The mighty power of God that was once against us has gone to battle for us against Satan, sin, and death. Not only that, but all God’s power is continuing to work for our good in everything (Rom. 8:28)
Which means that we should never be content to only wrestle with passages like this. If we belong to God through faith in Jesus, we ought to move on to worship God for his great power and might. Because it has been extended to the limit for our sake.
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b-32)