Is God a Warmonger? (Part 3)
3. A third reason that God sanctioned “total war” was, not only to demonstrate his righteous judgment, but also to demonstrate his grace to others and to future generations. Since all people are sinners (Genesis 3; Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23), all people are rightly subjected to God’s judgment. The Pentateuch gives a moral rationale for the removal of the Canaanites, seeing it as divine judgment for their sins and wickedness. The purging of the Canaanites by the nation of Israel is an expression of God’s judgment on them through the agency of Israel and is but a sign of God’s final cosmic judgment to come on all the peoples of the earth. In ways that are not entirely clear yet, but are still “secret things” belonging to God, the faithful will participate with God in carrying out the final judgment: (Deuteronomy 29:29; 1 Corinthians 6:2)
Ultimately, God will execute his judgment on the wicked, regardless of ethnicity, gender, wealth, or any other social condition. The bad news is that all of us have sinned and deserve this judgment. The good news is that there is one who is righteous. Jesus Christ lived a sinless life and died a sinners death to take away the wrath of God for the sins of those who believe in him. Unless we bow the knee to Christ, we all ultimately will face a destiny like the Canaanites, falling under the righteous judgment of God. God’s execution of his judgment on the Canaanite peoples, and on the Israelites indiscriminately, serves as a warning to us to flee God’s wrath and find safety in Christ.
In ancient Near Eastern culture, triumph in warfare was commonly associated with the strength of a nation’s god. Consequently, the annihilation of Israel’s enemies conveyed that the one, true God of Israel had asserted his power and rule over the false gods of the Canaanites. In other words, God often utilized the currency of that culture—warfare—to make himself known. Even though the laws about destroying the Canaanites are stated in an uncompromising and unconditional way (in keeping with the rhetoric of Ancient Near Eastern conquests), the way Israel applied those laws apparently made room for some of the Canaanites to surrender and survive, particularly if they professed faith in the one true God. This means that there is an implied allowances for exceptions to the law to “destroy every living thing” in Canaan. Listen to the words of one Canaanite woman named Rahab when she met some Israelites:
For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. ~Joshua 2:10-11
Even in the Old Testament, God was a God of grace, calling people to himself from all the nations of the earth. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who was not born into the Covenant promises of God, repents of her sins, acknowledges and follows God, and winds up listed as one of the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). This is another point showing that God’s command given to Israel is nothing like “ethnic cleansing,” since ethnic cleansing itself is not the reason for the action God is commanding Israel to take.
4. Fourth, the events described in the Old Testament took place during a unique period of human history in which God used the nation of Israel in a distinctive way at that time, but today Christians do not claim the same instructions God gave specifically to ancient Israel. In the Old Covenant made between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai, Israel was set up to be a “theocracy” which blended church and state life. Membership in the people was both religious and political and thus “citizens” are under obligation to be faithful in observing the covenant. Those who carried out great sins were to be removed: (Deuteronomy 13:5; Deuteronomy 17:7) If Israel were to allow unrepentant Canaanites to remain in the land they would drag the whole people own into idolatry, injustice and evil: (Deuteronomy 7:4; Deuteronomy 12:29-31)
Sadly, this is exactly what happened to the people of Israel. Christians, however, do not carry out this kind of warfare because the people of God are no longer identified with a particular nation state but are comprised of a multinational community of faith that does not follow the political and military example of ancient Israel. Therefore, Christians cannot claim the same instructions God gave specifically to ancient Israel. (Galatians 3:28)
5. Finally, God is also portrayed in the Old Testament as having tremendous patience, grace, and compassion. God often gave wicked nations generations to repent of their sin before he judged them, and he extended mercy to those who did (e.g., the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). The law that God gave to Moses also instructed the Israelites to offer peace before attacking a city (Deuteronomy 20:10). God even told Abraham that he would not destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous people living there (Genesis 18).
The issue of war in the Old Testament is complex. God himself appears conflicted at times when faced with the need to exercise justice (Lamentations 3:33-34). However, the Bible also portrays a hopeful future when:
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. ~Isaiah 2:4
This is God’s redemptive design for our world. While he sometimes used warfare to judge wicked nations in the Old Testament, and while the depravity of human sin often makes war inevitable today, we can anticipate a chapter in God’s story when war will be no more.