March 28

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 26:36-46; Romans 15:1-13; Psalm 74:12-23; Deuteronomy 20-22

War is a difficult topic to discuss, particularly where the Bible is considered. Many can accept a New Testament God of love and forgiveness, but not an Old Testament God of wrath and war. This page cannot resolve all these difficulties, but will address a few aspects of this topic. One is that some popular views on this are completely untrue. Richard Dawkins claims that, ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: … a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’ (The God Delusion, p. 31). In contrast, the Bible puts severe limits on the way war should be fought, especially when compared to how other cultures fought their wars.

For example, Deuteronomy 20 provides clear evidence that God wanted Israel to have limited wars. We will address the all-out warfare ordered in vv. 16-18 elsewhere. In general, God ordered Israel to go to war in order that they would have a land in which he could develop a people that would bless the world (Genesis 12:1-3). These promises of blessings for Gentiles are reiterated in Christ (Romans 15:8-13) Deuteronomy 20 opens by reminding Israel that they would fight against mightier and larger armies, but that God would be with them. They were to go to war only when God sent them into battle, not because they saw opportunities to conquer weaker nations. Apart from this time period, Israel’s later wars were defensive.

God also recognised that war was difficult for soldiers, and not for every man (20:5-8). People should be able to enjoy the fruit of their labours and marriages. The army was not to override all other interests. Some men would be so fearful in battle that they would dishearten their comrades. Such men would be better off at home. We see compassion in God here, not war-mongering. We see further development on this when Jesus warns in tomorrow’s passage about the dangers of taking up the sword (Matthew 26:52).

War was not the first option to be pursued. Distant cities were to be offered terms of peace where the people would become labourers in Israel (20:10-15). God’s war was not vindictive ethnic cleansing, but proportionate. If a city accepted such terms, they were to be treated respectfully as many other laws make clear. If they did not surrender and were defeated in battle, the women and children were to be spared. The men could marry captive women, and were to treat them respectfully (21:10-14). This differed from other armies that often raped, brutalised and enslaved women prisoners. The writings of other nations glory in the gory details of how they tortured and killed prisoners, but the Bible is very different. Even the environment was to be taken into account and trees not recklessly cut down (20:19). War was to be limited by strict rules.

This makes the treatment of dedicated nations so much more difficult to accept (20:16-18). The complete destruction of everything that breathes revolts us. These verses summarise what is called ‘the ban,’ discussed more thoroughly under Joshua 9-10. Deuteronomy reminds us that such total warfare was limited to a specific group of nations at one specific time. Earlier, the reason for the ban was given (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). These nations had become so wicked, they were beyond redemption. God did not hate these people, but he hated their religion because it drew people away from him and into practices like infant sacrifice. He also knew that if Israel remained in contact with these nations, the people would be corrupted and drawn away from God.

We may struggle with God’s methods, but we should understand the reasoning behind this approach. Some things are so destructive to us and our walks with God that we should have nothing to do with them (drunkenness, pornography and abusing others come to mind). We live in a different era when executing criminals is not widely accepted. Yet we restrict the rights and movements of some whose crimes are particularly abhorrent. Restrictions are put in place to ensure sexual predators and child abusers are kept away from those they might harm or even influence. We trust that God knew that ‘the ban,’ although extreme, was the only way he could protect his children at that point in time. However, more generally, we see here in Deuteronomy 20 that such practices were unique and that in general war was a last option to be undertaken only after political approaches had failed. When necessary, war was to be waged only at God’s command and in a limited and humane way.

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