War and the Christian Worldview: Why Did God Command War?

woman holding up Bible, source of Christian worldview

Part six in the seven-part series War and The Christian Worldview

Grand Canyon University was founded with a Christian worldview to give students a better curriculum for their education. This week, Dr. Brian Koning discusses the history of God commanding war in the land of Canaan and why it is an important distinction.

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Below is a transcript of War and the Christian Worldview, episode 6, Why Did God Command War in the Old Testament?:

Hello, my name is Dr. Brian Koning I’m a PhD in Old Testament studies and instructor of theology here at Grand Canyon University.

The Old Testament is an idiomatic part of the Christian Bible. Not only is it far away from us as modern readers both in terms of time and space, it also has ideas that sometimes confuse and baffle us. Perhaps no idea is more confusing than the idea of war. Israel seems to fight throughout the Old Testament. God even seems to command it at times.

What do we make of that? How do we deal with that? As modern readers in the Christian era that's the question we're going to be dealing with today. Why does God command war in the Old Testament? To really answer that question, I think we need to ask three key sub-questions.

First, we need to ask what reasons God could have for commanding war, what would his potential reasoning be? Second, we should ask if war is compatible with the goodness of God, can we align those two ideas? And third, we need to ask if God commanded Israel to go to war, could he command the church to go to war today? Each of these questions are important and we're going to address them in turn as a kind of outline of our video here today.

Reasons Why God Commands War

Let's go ahead and dig on in. We start with that first question what reason could God have for commanding war? We can give several answers to this question; the first being the nation of Israel itself you see in the Old Testament to accomplish his plan of redemptive history. God chooses the nation of Israel by making that choice though he's now committed himself to operate within a specific framework that is the framework of a nation and here we encounter war.

War is necessary for any nation to survive. Any nation that is unable or unwilling to defend itself ultimately will be captured or destroyed, and especially a nation in a very sought-after region of the fertile crescent like the land of Canaan where Israel goes. By God choosing Israel as his kingdom of priests and the holy nation he has to allow them the capacity for war to defend themselves and exist in that region. So that's one reason why God could command war.

The second reason God commands war is to reveal his character and nature on a national and international stage. Now that sounds odd but let's explain a little bit. We're dealing with the context of the ancient near east, the context of ancient Israel seen in modern terms.

When we look at war, we think of the soldiers, the commanders, the nations that might be embroiled in this conflict. The ancient world certainly looked and saw those things, but they also looked up and had a cosmic view of war. See when you as a nation went to war it was not just your people, your armies and your commanders, it was your gods who joined you on the battlefield. Victory was not just the successful conquest of arms of one group over another, it was the proof that your gods were actually supreme, that your gods came and defeated the gods of your opponents.

How does this fit into our conversation? Well God is clear through his revelation that he is the supreme God. There is none like him, there is none beside him; that's the first commandment of the ten commandments. So, when Israel goes and fights what is that revealing not just to Israel but to the nations around them? Well, if they can go and fight and overcome, they are proving to themselves and their neighbors that their God is real, that their God is true, and their God is powerful. So, we see God has good theological reasons and context to allow Israel to go to war.

Third and finally we can also point out that war is a tool of judgment against sin. We see this perhaps best in the conquest of Canaan. God is quite clear that the Canaanites, as they are being driven out by the people of Israel, are being driven out because of their sin. We can look at numerous passages, for example, Genesis 15, Deuteronomy chapter 9 and Joshua chapters 9-11, all these point out that God has given the people of Canaan numerous times, in fact hundreds of years, in order to repent and change from their sins.

God is a patient God, but he is ultimately just and so in this context, war is used to punish sin in a somewhat dramatic turn of historical irony. War is actually going to be the tool of punishment that God uses against Israel when he brings up the Assyrian and Babylonian people. Let's put these three ideas together why might God command war in the Old Testament. Well, we've now seen three reasons. First, because it's a tool of the state necessary for survival. Two, because it is a theological means to communicate God's supremacy and power in the ancient near east and third, because it is a tool of judgment against sin with that kind of covered.

Is War Compatible With God's Goodness?

Let's turn now to the second question, is war compatible with the moral goodness of God? Let's start by examining that theological basis. Anyone who wants to say these are incompatible ideas would have to affirm a statement like this. That the killing of people and maybe, especially non-combatants or innocents is morally contradictory to God's goodness and nature. What do we make of that idea?

Though let's start with a conception of sin in Christian theology. There is no such thing as a morally innocent person. David declares in Psalm 51 that from birth he was conceived in sin. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If all have sinned all then are potentially eligible to be punished for their sin that is just, that is God's prerogative war. We've already seen people can be used as a vehicle for that punishment. If we have all sinned and God can punish our sin then there is no theological contradiction with God using war in that fashion.

Now we can add to this observation another thing that through war, it is not just God's justice and judgment that is being evident but also his mercy and his grace. Consider for example the story of Rahab in Joshua 2. Rahab belongs to the city of Jericho, a city that is supposed to be completely destroyed. No one is supposed to survive from the city yet through her faith and trust in God and protecting the spies that are sent to her city, Rahab saves not just herself but her entire family. God's grace and mercy apparently were still available to any who wanted to turn to it could still be saved even amidst national tragedy and war.

Speaking of Jericho, how did God command Israel to wage war in the Old Testament? We often think of Jericho as normative, that is we think of God commanding Israel to go and kill everyone in every town they conquered. But cities like Jericho are actually the exception rather than the normative rule. In Deuteronomy chapter 20 God outlines the laws by which Israel is to wage war. Most notably among those, Israel is forbidden from fairly aggressive forms of warfare such as scorched earth policy. They are also required to give cities a chance to surrender before the commencement of hostilities.

Within Deuteronomy 20 God does list that there are some enemies and some cities that will have to be fully destroyed. The reason given is because these cities are representative of other religions, religions that needed to be removed lest they infect Israel and cause her to turn away from God. In a kind of unfortunate historical foreshadowing that's exactly what ends up taking place. These enemies are not destroyed, and they do ultimately lead Israel away. The destruction of these cities do represent the minority, they are the exception rather than the rule. For example, in the conquest of Canaan only three of the cities Jericho, I and Hazor are the only cities fully destroyed, all the rest face a normative form of warfare.

Let's bring together those first two major questions then. We asked why might God command war in the Old Testament and we gave three answers. It's necessary for national survival, it reveals theological truth and it's a vehicle for the punishment of sin. We then asked is war compatible with the goodness of God and we said yes.

All have sinned and therefore God can punish sin but even through war God's mercy and grace was still evident and still there for all who would choose it having looked at those. Let's move to the last question if God commanded Israel to go to war might he command the church to go to war?

Does God Command the Church To Go to War?

Today the answer to that question is a simple no and the reason has to do with redemptive history you see in the Old Testament. We've talked why God chose to use a nation to advance his plans and purposes. Remember that as a nation war has to be on the table but we're in the New Testament now. In the Old Testament, the people of God were equivalent to a singular nation but in the New Testament what has happened to the people of God.

Well, the church is no longer a singular nation but is a multinational body. As the Book of Acts puts it it's made up of individuals from Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth by being a multinational body. The national laws of Israel do not apply to the church on mass. The church is not a state; it's not a political agent and therefore the laws of the Old Testament do not give it carte blanche to wage war as an entity in and of itself.

There is the question of could a Christian fight for his or her home country. That's an intriguing question and something that is beyond the scope of our time today. What we are saying is that the concept of God commanding war was something that applied to Israel as a nation. It occurs in a very specific time in the redemptive history of the world. Wherein the people of God were a singular nation and outside of that context, we would not expect war to be commanded by God.

So, we have just scratched the surface of this very deep and interesting question of war in the Old Testament. We have not touched on all the things we could talk about. So, in order to help you if you are interested in exploring this idea further, you'll see on the screen some resources and readings. These resources are related to this question as well as several ancillary topics. I hope they help you and encourage you to study God's Word more deeply.

Thank you and have a wonderful day.

Read other blogs in this War and the Christian Worldview series and learn about theology and ministry degree programs offered by GCU's College of Theology today. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.