Holy War?

Posted: November 12, 2008 in Archaeology, Politics

This is a selection from a book I am writing called Wandering and Conquest: Studies in the New Courville Perspective, Vol. 1, 2009.


Much attention has been drawn to the harshness of the Israelite Conquest.  Here we have Israelites killing women and children who had been taken as captives.  Is this ever right?  Does not this harshness and cruelty reflect upon the religion of Israel, upon the God of Israel?

We cannot mitigate the harshness of Israelite warfare by saying it was only restricted to the land of Canaan.  That is true enough, but critics want to know why it was permitted even in the land of Canaan.  Isn’t the killing of captives, especially of women and children, always wrong?  Surely, we would not find such practices acceptable today.  So has morality changed between the time of Moses and our own time?

When this issue of the harshness of the Conquest is brought up, the question of moral equivalency must also be discussed.  Those who point to the cruelty of God, or of the Israelites, are essentially saying that all actions are equivalent on the moral plane.  This is a view that needs to be justified not merely assumed.

The harshness of holy war during the Conquest cannot be explained without taking into account the redemptive-historical nature of Israel.  Israel was a unique nation, one that cannot be placed on an equivalent plane with the nations of the world.  Israel was a priestly nation.  In Christian theology, it had as its primary purpose the foreshadowing of the sacrificial and messianic work of Christ, and was therefore required to be a holy nation, free from the blemish of idolatry.  Harsh punishment and cruel warfare were the means of preserving the holiness of Israel vis-à-vis the syncretism and commonality of idolatry.

No other nation, either in the ancient world or today, can claim to be a priestly nation, to have a unique covenant with God after the manner of the Mosaic covenant.  Holy warfare is therefore a thing of the past (as are imprecatory psalms, if left unspiritualized).  The practice of holy warfare was therefore allowable only at one time and for one nation, and that nation is now gone forever (as a unique covenantal nation).  During the Conquest, Israel was acting as God’s agent of holiness, and Israel’s killing of its foes was no harsher than God’s similar punishment of sinners during the Flood, at the time of the plagues upon Egypt, and so on.

Perhaps it seems harsher because there was a human agent involved.  That tends to be unsettling, for would this not provide a rationale for others to seek to enforce God’s will upon others by violence?  Would it not be a recipe for cruelty in war?

Of course, when it comes to discussing fallen man, and his capability for cruelty and oppression, such questions are not silly, even if one does not go to Hobbesian extremes in describing the fallen state.  Nevertheless, the redemptive-historical nature of Israel prevents any deduction from Israel’s mode of holy warfare to any modern model of absolute warfare (including jihad).  It is precisely because man is a sinner that holy war was temporary and circumscribed.  Without God’s immediate guidance, the practice of holy war would be abused by fallen man.  It would start out as a noble enterprise, no doubt, but because of man’s fallen state, it would quickly be perverted into a means of man’s oppression of man.

For this reason there can no longer be any justification for harshness in warfare.  Any state, any religion, or any cause that claims holy war as a proper method of fighting, or of propagating a message, is claiming a unique moral status.  For Christians, however, such unique moral status was meant only for ancient Israel, and for no other nation, whether in the ancient world or in our own world of today.

Israel’s laws and forms of warfare cannot be explained in terms of setting up Israel as an ideal nation that all nations past and present must emulate, as if a modern polity could adopt Israel’s covenant and its laws, and thereby share in Israel’s unique moral status.  As soon as one attempts to do this one is immediately confronted by the problem of holy war.  Nevertheless, it is only by recognizing Israel’s unique redemptive-historical role that holy warfare can be fairly explained and also seen as forever discontinued.


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