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A tricky issue: War in the Old Testament

Notes & Transcripts

Over the past few weeks we’ve been preaching through the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ words to the People of Israel on the doorstep of the promised land – 1500 years before the time of Jesus. As we’ve been preaching through it over the past few weeks, we’ve been asking what it has to teach us about living as the People of God. And there have been lots of encouraging things we’ve learnt: we’ve used words like celebrating, just, generous, moral and devoted, to speak about the way we should live.

But if you’re astute, you may have noticed that there has been a tricky issue lurking in the background that we haven’t yet addressed. An issue that nearly every reader of Deuteronomy, and nearly every reader of the OT has to wrestle with sooner or later. The issue of war, and attitude of the Old Testament to it.

I say the attitude of the Old Testament to it, because Jesus and the writers of the New Testament have a very extreme attitude to violence. It’s called non-violence. Complete non-violence. We heard read Matthew’s account of Jesus being arrested by a mob the night before he was crucified. Jesus has been praying in a garden called Gethsemane, and suddenly Judas Iscariot turns up with a gang sent by the chief priests. And when one of Jesus’ companions drew a sword, and struck one of the mob, what did Jesus say: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) In response to Jesus’ ethic, many Christians have become pacifists, conscientious objectors in wartime. And I have to say I have a lot of sympathy with that view myself.

So why then are we preaching on Deuteronomy 20? Which is all about the Israelites going to war. If a command to take up swords doesn’t seem to fit with Jesus’ attitude why are we bothering?

Well firstly I want to say that I don’t find it an easy passage to read or preach on. But then I have heard the criticism often leveled at preachers ”You only preach on the bits of the bible you like”. If we do that then a sort of unreality can creep into our preaching – people start to wonder if we are really preaching the God of the Bible at all, or just our own pet theories. The last month I’ve been claiming that the book of Deuteronomy is inspired by God and speaks to us today. So if I decide to skip over a bit I find difficult, can you see how that might be a bit dishonest? But it’s a bigger than that. The issue of war is not simply one chapter in the book that we can skip over, it is part of the whole book’s context. We can’t just take a surgeon’s knife and cut it out. Remember where this story comes in the whole Bible: the people of Israel are standing on the doorstep to the Land God Promised Them, and they are being told to go into the whole land, conquer it, drive out the current inhabitants and settle there. No if we’re preaching through Deuteronomy, we must at some stage address this issue.

But the second reason why we are preaching on Deuteronomy 20, is that when we do read it in context, as a document of it’s time, it has a lot to say about God’s character and his vision for how his people should live. Remember one of the biggest mistakes people make when reading the Bible is to rip verses out of their context. We must always remember that the words of the Bible (OT or NT) were first addressed to people back then, before we can discern God’s word to us today. We must therefore do some detective work, thinking ourselves into their situation before we rush to conclusions.

One of the biggest differences between The People of God in the Old Testament and the New Testament is that in the OT, God’s People form are a nation state. Israel. In the NT, The people of God are nothing of the sort – they are an underground movement. They transcend every cultural and ethnic barrier. And we’re the continuation of that movement today -  The followers of Jesus. One of the tragic realities of Christian history is that commands to take up arms in God’s name from the OT have sometimes been totally misappropriated to contemporary ethnic or national conflicts.

And so as we approach this chapter from Deuteronomy, we need to imagine ourselves into a totally different period of history. God’s people are a young nation, in a world where tribal conflicts were a day to day reality. There were no UN peacekeeping envoys of declaration of human rights. Once they were living in the land God had given them, Israel would inevitably face attack and be required to defend itself. The question is, as we approach these laws in Deuteronomy: What sort of nation is being described here?


Read v 5-7

“The officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. 7 Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.”

Aren’t these verses interesting? Imagine a nation that lived this out. The soldiers have just had a pep talk before they go into battle, but then some of the ranks are given permission to leave. The man who has just built his house, the farmer who has just planted a vineyard, the fiancé not yet married is bride to be. Deuteronomy is saying something which is very rare in rhetoric about war  -that ordinary life is worth celebrating – and that not even a war should prevent us from doing so . Moving into a new home, harvesting a first crop, getting married.

I know it is a totally different context, but maybe as Christians we do well to remember this. That God cares deeply about our lives and our families lives: the ordinary humdrum details and the big occasions we celebrate. Sometimes churches, Christian organizations, or our sense of drivenness can mean that the latest crusade can crowd out the very life that God wants us to celebrate. It won’t be war, but it might be a particular ministry, an issue we are campaigning on, an overseas mission trip… No doubt good things in themselves, but if they crowd out the ordinary gifts of life God wants us to celebrate and thank him for– then we will end up impoverished.

One of the terrible things about warfare is that it does just that – the war becomes so important that it pushes aside the importance of ordinary life. Armies start to treat their soldiers as dispensable resources rather than individual lives because of some supposed higher purpose. But look with me now at v8. and compare it with what we know about World War I

8 Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that the others will not become disheartened too.”

You may know that during World War One many soldiers were executed. The armies wanted to set examples to the troops. Do not walk away from our war - we shoot you if you do. The men were shot for desertion, mutiny, cowardice (even if it was caused by shell shock or other mental illness). In total British court martials had 306 soldiers shot at dawn. Among them were 5 New-Zealanders.

It’s very hard to imagine ourselves into the nation of Israel 3500 years ago. But when we see laid out here laws which celebrate ordinary life. Which give a dignified way out to soldiers unable to fight. And then when we turn from a war from a century ago practices which are a long way from these ideals, does it get to start you to wonder. Maybe there’s something in this chapter from Deuteronomy after all?


Read v19-20

19 When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? 20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect to find these verses in Deuteronomy chapter 20. Concern for the environment, and deforestation in particular, is a massive issue in the 21st Century. But it’s not something that we expect a small nation state 3500 years ago to be concerned with. Now I know these verses don’t go into all the consequences of deforestation: increased soil erosion, danger of flash floods, loss of habitat. Rather they concentrate on a more immediate concern – that the trees are a valuable source of fruit - for this and future generations. But nevertheless the central words “Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” have strong emotional appeal to preserve God’s good creation.

Now let’s go back to thinking about our day for a moment. Environmental concern is a big discussion topic among national leaders.  But can you imagine a modern nation engaged in war restricting its operation because of environmental concerns? The military authorities wouldn’t stand for it – “We’re involved in a war here – we need to throw everything at it!” Do you remember what happened in 1985 in Auckland Harbour? French military authorities were testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific. When Greenpeace activists were about to set sail to protest against the devastating environmental consequences of these weapons, french spies were sent to sink their ship, the Rainbow Warrior. And this from a western nation that wasn’t even at war – simply testing weapons. Now when we read these words from 3500 years ago about preserving trees that could be used to build siege ramps, doesn’t it make you wonder “Maybe there’s something in this chapter from Deuteronomy after all?”


We’re coming now towards a more challenging part of the passage, about how the Israelites will treat those who they are fighting against. We’ll look first at the general rules for war, before looking at a much more tricky specific case. Let’s read V10-15

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

Notice that the first instinct of the Israelites must be to make peace with their enemies. “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace”. It’s true that the terms of peace can seem quite harsh to modern ears. And if the city does not surrender the terms are even more harsh. But in the ancient world, this sort of practice was normal. What makes Deuteronomy different is some of the extra laws not in this chapter which deal with some of how this worked out in practice. For example the passage in Deut 21:10-14 about taking a woman captured in battle as your wife may sound strange and archaic to our ears, but in the ancient world gave the woman a huge amount of dignity to a captured woman – she is not to be treated as a slave (v14), rather she is to be given full status as a wife and member of the family.

I don’t know how you feel about these verses; they’re not easy for me to get my head round. But I come back again to the initial injunction to make every city an offer of peace. God’s intention for his world is peace. War is never pretty or glorious. In our 21st Century world, nations are no better than 3500 years ago in the Middle East. The lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed that national leaders even of western nations are adept at charting a course towards war and making up the case for it as they go along. No serious offer of peace was ever made to Iraq – and Iraq had not even launched an attack on the US or the UK. With that perspective from less than a decade ago, When you read these words about peace from 3500 years ago does it get you thinking: maybe there is something this chapter from Deuteronomy teaches us after all.


Well we have circled around long enough. Now we must come to the verses – and the issue - which has been probably the biggest stumbling block for Christians reading the Old Testament. The issue of how the existing inhabitants of the Promised Land were to be treated by the invading Israelite army. Before I read these verses, remember that these were only to apply to this situation – as the Israelites took possession of the land. Other wars they fought were governed by the rules we’ve just read. Here goes:

Read v16-18

 16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

These aren’t verses I relish preaching on! And I’m glad that I’m not the first to have done so. Chris Wright, recently gave a sermon at All Souls Langham Place in London entitled  “What about the Canaanites?” (and we might add the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites). Chris is a noted evangelical bible scholar. He spoke at John Stott’s funeral. He was in Christchurch last week doing a workshop for Kiwi preachers. He says in his sermon:

“I’m coming to the view after years of wrestling with this issue and thinking around it as an Old Testament Teacher that really there is no solution to this issue. I think this is one of those things which I simply have to leave within my basket of things that I don’t really  fully understand about God and about the ways of God. But there are some considerations, there are some perspectives that I think help. They don’t solve it in the sense that they remove all the emotion and moral pain and all the horror and revulsion we feel when we read these stories. But they do at least for me help my faith and I offer to them for the same reason.”

Wise words – about what a preacher can and can’t offer as we come to these verses. And I want to pick up on two perspectives that Chris Wright uses to address this issue. They are 2 aspects of God’s character: Firstly understanding it within God’s Sovereign Justice. Secondly understanding it within God’s overarching plan of salvation.

So firstly, how does it help us to put this within an understanding of God’s sovereign justice?

The Old Testament describes again and again the wickedness of the Canaanite culture very graphically indeed. [You see a hint of that in v18 here “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.”]. What we know of the time from archaeology backs up the Bible’s description that the Canaanite religions were a range of bizarre and depraved fertility cults. These had been going on for literally generations and involved things horrendous things including child sacrifice.

Some words from a previous chapter in Deuteronomy describe some of these practices. Read Deut 18:9-12

9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.

Deuteronomy is setting the conquest of the land in the context of God’s judgment on the depraved lifestyle of those living there. That it wasn’t just meaningless violence – one nation flexing its muscles against another. It was God’s judgment on a civilization that was morally depraved. In his sovereign justice, God used Israel as an instrument to punish the wickedness of the Canaanites. Now this isn’t easy. But I wonder whether you agree with me that sometimes there are situations which are so terrible in our world that we cry out for God’s justice? “Why don’t you do something God? Step in and confront them! Don’t you care?”  If you think that there are some situations like that then you’ll probably agree with me that child sacrifice is one of them. We might feel that the terms of judgment imposed here in Deuteronomy are too harsh. When I was preparing for this talk I looked at them and saw them as incredibly harsh. But at that point I have to hold up my hands and say I’m not God. I don’t see sin from God’s perspective. And I don’t see this period of history from his perspective. But I do understand that God – both in the NT and the OT -  is a God of Justice.

But we can’t leave it there. We mustn’t leave it there. No for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus, we mustn’t leave it there. You see all week as I have been preparing this sermon there has been a nagging question inside me: “Is there any other way? God is there any other way you could have dealt with the Canaanites? Is there any other way in which you deal with sin? When you look at the nations of today and see the injustices we perpetuate…. Is there any other way?”

And as I was praying and preparing and writing, I realized… Yes there is. There is another way. And God has already done it!

He did it in a garden. The garden I spoke about at the start of my sermon. The Garden of Gethsemane. When Judas Iscariot brought a bloodthirsry mob to drag Jesus off to the high priest, one of Jesus’ friends drew a sword. For all my pacifist leanings I might have done the same. Here is God’s Son – the most perfect person who ever lived – and the religious leaders want to drag him away and have him executed like a common criminal. That makes me angry, that makes me want to draw my sword, that makes me want to strike the chief priest’s servant on the face.

But Jesus says no. “Put your sword back in it place… Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way.”

You see the scriptures speak of a God of Justice. But they speak even more of a God of salvation – of rescue. In that garden, minutes before, Jesus had agreed to a plan that combined both God’s justice and his salvation. Kneeling, with his face to the ground he had prayed “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” That question he was asking was in effect “Is there any other way?”

Well, the other way, the other alternative is the one that we’ve been wrestling with in this sermon. That those who rebel against God would be held accountable for their actions. That one day each person would face God’s judgment for how they have lived: Canaanite or Jew, Greek or Roman, Brit or Kiwi.

But this way, the way that Jesus chose in the garden (and in reality he had chosen before the dawn of time) was that God’s justice would be shown not in the destruction of sinful people, of nations, of a world who had rebelled against God. But in God himself taking that judgment on himself on the cross. He chose to drink the cup that was reserved for us.

Now I don’t know about you, but that perspective helps me immensely. It helps me because no longer when I wrestle with this issue am I a neutral observer, someone looking on at a sinful nation from long ago. No, I too am a sinner. A sinner who deserves God’s judgment. A redeemed sinner, bought with the blood of Christ shed on the cross. That perspective helps me immensely. You see God too wrestles with this issue. He wrestles with it far more than we ever will do. The issue of reconciling his justice and his love. And he wrestles so much that it cost him everything. It took him to the cross. Where he gave up everything, so that all who trust in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. Thanks be to him!

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