I am writing this post for two of the most important people in my life. The first person is my best friend who started me on my journey to the political left without ever discussing politics. She did this by the care and compassion she showed for others. My best friend struggles, however, with the concept of God's judgment. It seems cruel and unnecessary to her and many others.
The second person is one of my favorite and most trusted authors to read, Noam Chomsky. Please realize that Noam does not know me personally and could not, at no fault of his own, tell me from Adam. But his undying passion for fairness and compassion, especially seen in his teaching of the Principle of Universality, which we either adhere to or perish, demand that we address his sharp objections to the Old Testament wars and God's character (see page 14 of this link). His passion for fairness has changed many of my beliefs about economics and politics to more humane and Biblical positions.
My fear for these two important people in my life is that, for understandable reasons, they might disregard the Biblical stories of the wars in the Old Testament as something that is very depraved. This is an understandable position since if the world had used the Old Testament wars as a basis for justice at Nuremberg, it is most likely that the Nazis would have never stood trial for their horrible atrocities.
At the same time, this post could be written for many of my conservative friends who use the Old Testament wars to challenge my peace activism. I'm afraid that they too might have learned some wrong lessons from these wars. The danger for them is not the discrediting of the Bible because of war but the stigmatizing of peace and compassion because of certain parts of the Bible as well as an idolatrous regard for tribalism. When my conservative friends stumble here, they join or support the world in its gang wars.
Is there any good that could come from the Old Testament wars? Certainly not if all time is the same and there is no special intervention of God in history. This is why liberals, who see no supernatural and reduce all reality to the natural and who are concerned with absolute values, morals, and compassion, have no use for these wars. This is understandable. Under such a world, the Israelites had no justification for their brutal attempts to ethnically cleanse the land and maintain possession of it.
So why were the Israelites allowed not just to invade Canaan, but to kill those whom we would call innocent civilians? The incomplete answer is to say God told them to. Though this is true, according to the Bible, we need more information. We need to know why God told them to do this. We need to know this because even though what we will learn may not change the minds who find these wars abhorrent, what we learn change those who support the Old Testament wars so that they will not use these wars to support today's barbarity.
The Old Testament wars had a redemptive-historical purpose back in the day. That purpose was to establish God's people in the land God promised to Abraham so that Israel could eventually do its part in bringing Christ into the world. Imitating Israel's actions in Canaan could only be done by those who are coldheartedly arrogant, such as the Puritans who thought America was their Canaan. God was giving the Israelites the land as a partial restoration of the Garden of Eden, as an earthly Heaven. The abundance of both food and commands indicate this while God's dwelling with them confirms it. Many instructions were spelled out in detail and keeping them was the condition for God's people to dwell in the land, to stay in the Garden.
We should note here that there were differences between the Garden and Canaan. There was only one command in the Garden, there are many commands given to the Israelites. There were no animal sacrifices in the Garden in contrast to the sacrifices in Israel. And God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, God's presence in Israel was veiled and He spoke to the people through Moses. These differences are because while Adam started his residence in the Garden as a sinless man, each Israelite was full of sin (Deuteronomy 9:4-5) and sinners need laws. So just as the Garden of Eden was a land of plenty given to Adam and Eve, the land of Canaan was to be a place of plenty (Deuteronomy 8:7-10) and peace for the children of Abraham (Deuteronomy 12: 8 - 11).
So if God's purpose with Israel was good, why were the Israelites allowed to ethnically cleanse the land rather than share their spiritual bounty with the indigenous population? It was because God was using the Israelites to judge the people in Canaan for their sins (Deuteronomy 9: 3-6). The expulsion of the Canaanites could be seen as somewhat similar to Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden. Only here, the instruments of God's judgment, the children of Abraham, are also guilty and are thus warned not to forget their past with God.
It is in the expulsion of the residents of Canaan, as well as the expulsion from the Garden, that we the immediate purpose for judgment. That purpose is the removal of sin. We see in the Scriptures that God cannot dwell with sin. That is no town is big enough for both God and sin. And since God was giving the land to the Israelites in order to fulfill His promise to Abraham and to dwell with the people, sin had to go.
And as hard as that judgment was for those nations, it became even more a salvation for God's people. This is a theme that is so often repeated throughout the Bible. God's judgment on sin brings salvation to His people. In the Old Testament times, the sins being judged were often the sins of the nations that were either in the promised land before Israel or the nations that surrounded it. But Israel was not excluded from judgment either. When they persisted in sin, they too were expelled from the land.
So since Israel was God's instrument of judgment on some of the nations in the Old Testament, should Christians eagerly volunteer to become instruments of judgment today? Or, in other words, should Christians be eager to fight their own holy wars? The answer is no and the reason can be derived from the Bible. For just as we see God's self-revelation become full as we reach the New Testament, so we see a clearer picture of who are God's enemies at the same time. That is as we see God having fully revealed Himself in Christ, so we see the sin that merits God's immediate judgment was the sin of all of us. Only instead of everyone being judged for their own sins, Christ bore the judgment for those who believe in Him. So again, we see how God's judgment brings salvation to His people by removing sin. Only in the New Testament, instead of people bearing the punishment for their own sins, the innocent Christ suffers suffers instead and the people are saved as their sins are removed.
In this New Testament change of scenery, we see the children of Abraham and the promises but with two changes. First, the children of Abraham are now identified as those who share Abraham's faith that God would fulfill His promises regardless of one's own impotence (Galations 3: 6 - 9). The second change is that we are not given a land to possess as part of a restoration of the Garden and a glimpse of Heaven. Rather, we are told to engage in a purpose-driven wandering throughout the world. We are told to go to every part of the world to make disciples of Jesus. And thus, because of this second difference, we have no home on earth (Hebrews 13:14). So we have no right to assume that we can bring God's judgment on the heathen through war and removal. Rather, we war against sin by preaching the Gospel knowing that if God was to treat everybody according to their sins, none of us could stand. We come to help the unbelievers as equals in sin telling them how they can be rescued.
It is the overlooking of the necessity of this redemptive-historical nature of God's past judgment on sins that is the major problem for all three parties who were addressed above. For my best friend, the removal of sin is necessary for our dwelling with God and for Heaven to be any different from a war torn earth. Again, if we go back to Deuteronomy 9, we see that if the Israelites do not completely remove the sinful nations God was judging, then Israel's venture into their version of the Garden of Eden would bring no change to the land. Likewise in the last days, if sin is not removed through the completed salvation of the believer and the Final Judgment, then Heaven would be nothing more than an eternal version of our current earth. It would be place with eternal suffering.
For Noam Chomsky, whom I consider to be a mentor through his writings, though challenging God's authority should bring more warnings than what the Surgeon General could ever write, that does not imply that we give those in authority a free pass. Rather, we must follow Chomsky's lead in challenging those who would abuse others regardless of their rank. But we must also realize that the wars during the Old Testament wars were never meant to provide a general rule for war. Those wars had a specific, non-repeatable purpose and so we do not need to reject God's Word here because of the brutality of those wars. In addition, we need to recognize God's right to judge his creation simply because the difference between God the creator from his creation. For it is through God's judgment that we are delivered from sin some of which includes oppressing and hurting others. Despite his objections to the violence in the Bible, all Christians should read what he wrote about the transition of Christianity during Constantine's time (access article). This might help reduce the idolatrous tribalism that many American Conservative Christians currently cling to.
And for the American Conservative Christian whose pedestal for patriotism makes it an idol, as was written for Chomsky, the Old Testament wars had a unique time, place, and purpose. Thus to use those wars as a justification for patriotically supporting America's wars is to ignore God's plan of redemption in order to some self-serving form of Constantinian Christianity. Here, American Conservative Christians need to see how such a Christianity runs completely counter to the progressive of revelation that is in the Bible. These Christians put themselves in a position of having to compromise the Gospel for the sake of American Exceptionalism. Such Christians must remember that America is not their home, Heaven is. And they must remember that all Christians are called to live for the Gospel rather than the American Dream.
We could sum up the problem people have with rejecting or misusing the Old Testament wars as misunderstanding the context of these wars. These wars had a unique role to play in Biblical history. In addition, we need to see the full context of God's judgment of people. It is there to remove sin, which is a cancer that kills all of us, and thus bring salvation to His people.
|This Month's Scripture Verse:|
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5