Try out the new BibleStudyTools.com. Click here!

War, Holy War

War, Holy War

Despite the fact that many nations have used Scripture passages out of context to promote martial ventures, the Old Testament does not glorify or even recommend warfare as a solution to problems. Quite the opposite: Violence is thoroughly condemned.

Lamech and his song of vengeance is an aberration in the history of man ( Gen 4:23-24 ). The famous heroes of old, men of renown, are not presented in a context of approbation ( Gen 6:4 ). Violence that filled the earth with pain was one of the major causes of the flood ( Gen 6:11 ). Nimrod, the mighty warrior and the first military aggressor ( 10:8-11 ), is not part of the redemptive line. The land of Nimrod is destined to be ruled by the sword ( Micah 5:6 ).

Simon and Levi lose their rights among the firstborn because their swords are weapons of violence. Although their massacre ( Gen 34 ) was for an allegedly moral purpose, it caused them to be scattered in Israel ( 49:5-7 ). When Moses killed an Egyptian to help an Israelite, he found that this method only delayed God's deliverance ( Exod 2:12 ).

David is associated with the successful expansion of his realm by warfare. He cannot, however, build God's temple because he has fought many wars and shed much blood in God's sight ( 1 Chron 22:8 ). When David sought to carry out a census with a military purpose it very nearly cost him his kingdom ( 2 Sam 24 ).

Wars in the Bible have been discouraged or even stopped by prophets. The prophet Shemaiah would not allow Rehoboam to put down the rebellion of the northern tribes by force of arms ( 1 Kings 12:22-23 ). Micaiah refused to be swayed by the unanimous clamor of the war prophets ( 1 Kings 22 ).

Israel's leaders are rebuked by the prophet Oded for bringing Judean prisoners of war into the country ( 2 Chron 28:11 ). Judah's leaders are destined for wrath because they sought to expand their borders when Israel was weakened by Assyrian aggression in the north ( Hosea 5:10 ). Their aggression is compared to unscrupulous landowners who move the boundary stones to increase the size of the property.

When war is inevitable, it must be carried out humanely. Nations are not allowed to go beyond the use of reasonable force necessary to achieve their objectives. In the first two chapters of Amos foreign nations are designed for judgment because of their war crimes both against Israelites and against each other. Jehu was authorized by Yahweh to end Ahab's dynasty, but his violence went far beyond his objectives. Thus the house of Jehu is to be punished for the massacre at Jezreel ( Hosea 1:4 ).

The Torah contained rules to ensure wars would be conducted as humanely as possible. Female captives could not be violated. If a man saw a prisoner he wished to marry, her rights and feelings must be respected. She must be given time to mourn her family. If he later grew tired of her, he could not abuse her or sell her for money ( Deut 21:10-14 ). Before a city was attacked the law required that terms of peace be offered. If peace was accepted the city was not to be destroyed ( Deut 20:11 ). There were even conservation laws governing destruction of trees in a siege ( Deut 20:19-20 ).

In the Old Testament era wars were often made unnecessary by miraculous or unusual circumstances. Exodus 14 presents a standard paradigm of biblical deliverance. Moses proclaims to the people, "Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today." The Pharaoh's elite chariot corps is destroyed by the waters of the sea without the use of a single human weapon.

Troops besieging Elisha's house are smitten with blindness. The prophet leads them straight into Samaria. When their eyes are opened, the prophet will not allow the king to kill them. After they are fed, they are returned to their master ( 2 Kings 6:18-22 ). Later in 2 Kings 7:6 the Aramean armies retreat because Yahweh makes a loud noise. In Hezekiah's time, the Assyrian siege is ended by the angel of death ( 2 Kings 19:35 ).

In Jonah 3:8 the Ninevites are not faulted for their idolatry but because of their violence. God makes it clear in Jonah 4 that it is his interest to save lives, not to take them. While it is true that Yahweh will one day punish the godless nations with a sword, it will be in his own good time. It will not be because he is overwhelmed by the anger of the moment. God is not slack concerning his promises but is willing for all to come to repentance ( 2 Peter 3:9 ). In Zechariah 1:12-13 even the angel of the Lord loses patience at this slowness and must be comforted.

The hope of the future for the people of God is not in war and conquest. It is when nations stream to the holy mountain to learn about God. It will be a time when weapons are turned into farm implements and war shall be no more ( Isa 2:1-4 ).

Genocide in the Book of Joshua. The killing of everyone in Jericho and Ai, young and old, men and women in Joshua ( 6:21 ; 8:24-25 ) seems harsh and cruel when taken out of context. It must be remembered that this is a special circumstance carried out only during the initial conquering of the land. It is not a general rule to be applied in every armed conflict.

Israel is forbidden to make an alliance with Canaanites or to give any quarter to them ( Exod 23:32-33 ; 34:12-15 ). Yet in Abraham's day no one felt it was strange for the patriarch to have an alliance with Eshcol and Aner ( Gen 14:13 ). In 15:16 Abraham is told that the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. Simon and Levi are rebuked for their slaughter of Canaanites at Shechem ( Gen 34 ; 49:5-7 ).

In Genesis 38 Judah leaves his brethren to stay with a Canaanite named Hirah who becomes his friend (vv. 1, 12). Later both he and his son marry Canaanite girls. One of these girls becomes a direct descendant of Christ and the first woman mentioned in the New Testament ( Matt 1:3 ).

At the end of the period of judges David conquers Jerusalem. Yet he does not kill the Jebusites there or even take their land by force. Instead, he refuses the gift of Arunah, the Jebusite's threshing floor, choosing to pay him for it ( 2 Sam 24:18-23 ). In the period of Solomon when all the Canaanite strongholds are under the authority of Israel, the Canaanites are not killed but are put to forced labor ( 1 Kings 9:20-21 ).

All this indicates that special circumstances were prevailing in the initial period of conquest. Leviticus 18 mentions the depraved state of Canaanite society at this time. Heinous sexual perversions were a part of their religion. Child sacrifice was also practiced. Verse 25 indicates that the land was so defiled that it vomited out its inhabitants. All these practices would not only have contaminated pure Mosaic Yahwehism but would have destroyed the fabric of any society's family structure.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 indicates the Canaanites were to be killed that they may not "teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods." It is a fact attested by archaeological finding that the immorality mentioned in Leviticus 18 was an integral part of Canaanite worship. One piece of literature depicts the head of the Canaanite pantheon bearing two children by a man's wives. The man is delighted they have been chosen for this purpose. Liturgical markings indicate it was used in worship. This story celebrates the birth of two Canaanite gods called Shachar and Shalim. It appears that the killing of these people was to be done at the outset so as to allow Mosaic morality to gain a foothold in the land.

Practices of Jezebel, Ahab's wife from Sidon, shows what happens when just one Canaanite occupies a place of authority. She attempts to kill all the prophets of the Lord ( 1 Kings 18:13 ). She has Naboth killed so Ahab can possess his vineyard. Ahab grew up in a society where the Ten Commandments were an important standard. Jezebel grew up in a context where she heard about a Canaanite goddess smashing a young man's skull because she wanted his bow.

Life is sacred in the Old Testament. Murder is a capital offense in the covenant of Genesis 9:1-7. Yet no physical life can be more important than God's redemptive purpose for the whole world. If Canaanites had been allowed to survive unbridled, they would have slowly and painfully killed their own selves.

It does not seem to have ever been God's purpose to slaughter all the Canaanites at once. The Book of Joshua describes a few dramatic victories for a theological purpose. Exodus 23:29-30, however, indicates it was God's original purpose to drive the Canaanites out "little by little" so the land would not become desolate and wild animals multiply against them. Judges 3:1-4 informs us that Canaanites were left to test the Israelites and to keep them militarily alert. What is seen in Joshua is the rapid crushing of Canaanite capability of being an offensive threat. They were militarily crippled so there would be little chance for them to gain control of Israelite society.

Actually the Book of Joshua plays down the human element in warfare. Joshua categorically denied that the land of Canaan was won with their own sword and bow ( Joshua 24:12 ). Moses before him had told the people that the nations would not be driven out because of Israel's righteousness but because of the wickedness of these nations ( Deut 9:4 ).

When the Israelites cross Jordan after a supernatural parting of the waters, Joshua seemingly proceeds to do everything a competent military commander should never do. He cripples his entire fighting force for two weeks by subjecting them to the painful act of circumcision ( Joshua 5:2 ). When the army recovered, they celebrated the Passover ( 5:10 ). Thereafter Joshua learns he is, after all, not the commander of the forces and must take off his shoes before his superior heavenly leader ( 5:14 ).

Israelites have no engineering skills to use in capturing a walled city. Instead they proceed to walk around the city and will use only faith to bring the walls down. After only two cities (Jericho and Ai) are taken they proceed north into hostile territory to Shechem. Here they pause to perform a lengthy, time-consuming consecration service ( Joshua 8:30-35 ).

The message of the Book of Joshua is that the land was not taken by brilliant military strategy, technologically advanced weaponry, or great heroism of mighty warriors. It was solely a supernatural act of the grace of God according to the promise. It was given by the promise and it will be kept by being faithful to the promises of God.

Holy War. The Old Testament speaks of the "wars of Yahweh" ( Num 21:14 ; 1 Sam 18:17 ; 25:28 ), but does not use the term "holy war." This was introduced into the literature by the German scholar Friedrich Schwally in 1901. It refers to a type of warfare totally devoted to the plans and purposes of the Lord. God not only endorses and directs it but is an active participant.

The first example of this kind of warfare in the Hebrew Bible is found in Exodus 17:8-16. Here the Amalekites are the aggressors. It is learned from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 that they were attacking the stragglers at Israel's rear when they were faint and weary. Although knowledge of the destruction of Egyptians in the Red Sea was widespread, these treacherous people had no qualms about attacking God's people. Therefore, these attacks were an affront to the glory of God.

Moses took the rod of God to the top of a hill. When the rod was raised, Israel prevailed. When Moses put his hands down, Amalek prevailed. At the end of the day the battle was won by Israel because Aaron and Hur kept Moses' hands held high. Moses was commanded by the Lord to record these events on a scroll. Hereafter there would be perpetual warfare between Yahweh and Amalek until they were completely blotted out.

Because this is war devoted to the Lord, it was often preceded by sacrifices, prayer, and some type of religious liturgy. The leader would often remind the troops that Yahweh had already delivered the enemy into their hand and would himself be fighting next to them. In Deuteronomy 20 the priest was to do this (vv. 1-4). In at least one battle the liturgy itself celebrating Yahweh's amazing grace was sufficient to bring about a decisive victory ( 2 Chron 20:20-23 ).

It was not always apparent that the war was actually a holy war. Various means of determining Yahweh's stance in the coming battle were sought such as Urim, dreams, or prophets. If the Lord did not answer by any of these, it was considered to be an ominous foreboding ( 1 Sam 28:5-7 ) and called for desperate measures. Kings were often very careful to determine if prophetic oracles endorsing the attack were genuine (cf. 1 Kings 22).

Because the war was a holy war, those who comprise the fighting force must also be holy. They were consecrated to the Lord ( Joshua 3:5 ). This would often require extensive inspection and preparations. Everyone was expected to be ritually clean. Even the camp itself must be holy. The Lord must not see anything indecent among them ( Deut 23:9-14 ). Even the weapons themselves would sometimes be consecrated to the Lord ( 1 Sam 21:5 ; 2 Sam 1:21 ).

The mental and emotional state of the army was important. Anyone who was fainthearted and did not put his full trust in Yahweh was sent home. Anyone who might have his mind too much on affairs back home was dismissed ( Deut 20:1-8 ).

Sometimes kings would attempt to write their own rules of holy war. A case in point would be Saul's requirement that no one could eat until the enemy was completely destroyed ( 1 Sam 14:24 ). Sometimes a battle would be won by bypassing ritual and prescribed routine. Jonathan and his armor bearer spontaneously attacked and routed a seemingly impregnable Philistine garrison in this way ( 1 Sam 14:1-23 ).

These examples indicate that God is not to be manipulated into giving victory because a certain set "recipe" was followed. Hophni and Phineas made the fatal mistake of assuming victory would be guaranteed by bringing a sacred cult object into the camp, namely, the ark of Yahweh ( 1 Sam 4 ). Later Jeremiah's temple sermon denounced the theology that assumed Jerusalem was inviolable because of the presence of the temple there ( Jer 7:8-15 ).

In 1 Samuel 13 and 15 Saul felt that the ritual sacrifice was more import than listening to God's word ( 15:22-23 ). Only faithfulness to the Torah and loyal obedience to Yahweh would insure victory. If the Torah is strictly followed it is promised that the enemy will come out one way and flee seven ways ( Deuteronomy 28:1 Deuteronomy 28:7 ). Wisdom literature observed that "when a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him" ( Prov 16:7 ).

The high point and conclusion to the battle was the dedication of the booty to the Lord. In total, all out holy war this was completely devoted to the sacred treasury ( Joshua 6:18-19 ). Personal appropriation of things under the ban would cause serious consequences. Achan's transgression caused defeat at Ai (Joshua 7-8). Saul's keeping back some of the spoil caused him to lose the kingdom ( 1 Sam 15:23 ).

David's Wars of Expansion. Early in his career David's military successes incited the wrath of Saul. Women sang of him that he had killed his ten thousands ( 1 Sam 18:7 ) while Saul was only given credit for his thousands. His first success over the giant Goliath was because he came not trusting in weapons but in the name of the Lord ( 17:45 ). Early in his life he had learned that simple faith in the Lord gave him victory over the lion and the bear. He brought this way of thinking to his first actual military situation. His viewpoint, which made the difference, was that Israel's forces were actually the army of the living God and thus should be invincible ( 17:36 ).

Psalm 60, traditionally considered to be Davidic, affirms that the help of man is worthless. "With God, " David says, "we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies." He believed that God raises a victory banner for those who fear him. In faith he could proclaim, "Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal" (vv. 4-12).

In 2 Samuel 22 David avers that Yahweh is the sum total of his strategic military potential (vv. 1-3). Through the eyes of faith he saw his victory being brought about by the march of the Divine Warrior in the attendant circumstances of storm and earthquake (vv. 8-16). With God's help he believes he is personally capable of astounding feats (v. 30). It is from Yahweh he has learned all his military expertise (v. 35). Only by God's grace has victory been achieved.

No king ever experienced David's victorious results. In direct contrast are Jeroboam II's hollow victory celebrations vaunting victory by his own hand ( Amos 6:13-14 ). David's small empire became a model, illustration, and pattern for the coming triumph of the ideal messianic king who will rule from sea to sea ( Zec 9:9-10 ). He will rule the nations with a rod of iron ( Psalm 2:8-9 ).

Amos 9:11-15 foretells of the restoration of David's fallen tent. The early New Testament church considered the conversion of the Gentiles as at least a partial fulfillment of this prophecy ( Acts 15:15-18 ). David's empire was never a biblical ideal toward which temporal kings were to strive. Such conquests would only be realized in the messianic era.

Warfare in Wisdom Literature. For waging war guidance is needed; many advisors will bring victory ( Prov 20:18 ; 24:6 ). A small city with few people in it can be saved by the wisdom of a poor man ( Eccl 9:14-15 ). This advice is echoed in the teaching of Christ in Luke 14:31-32. A king who wages war against another must count the cost. So a disciple who follows Christ in the way of the cross must also count his cost.

Secular warfare is risky business. Even with superior resources victory is never assured because time and chance happen to all ( Eccl 9:11 ). There is, however, safety against capricious fate. The name of the Lord is a strong tower where the righteous can be safe ( Prov 18:10 ). One can have many war horses but in the end the battle is the Lord's ( Prov 21:31 ; Isa 31:1 ).

Some weapons are more lethal than military hardware. The teeth of the wicked are like knives and swords ( Prov 30:14 ). There are those who use their tongue like the thrusts of a sword ( Prov 30:14 ). James 3:5-6 says that the tongue can set the whole world on fire. There are some tasks more difficult than capturing enemy cities. Controlling your own spirit and winning back an offended brother are examples ( Prov 16:32 ; 25:28 ).

Wisdom, power, and warfare are interconnected in Isaiah 51:9-10 with the exodus. In the Wisdom of Solomon, an apocryphal book, wisdom, the Logos, the all-powerful Word, is a fierce warrior. He leaps from heaven's royal throne with a sharp sword to slay the firstborn in Egypt (18:14-16). Following this concept of wisdom and the word, the New Testament identifies the sword of the Spirit as the Word of God ( Eph 6:18 ). The same theme is found in Hebrews 4:13-14. Here the Word is like a sharp sword penetrating the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Eschatological Warfare. Prophets foretold that in the days to come Israel would be given special powers over their enemies. With horns of iron and hoofs of bronze they will break to pieces many nations ( Micah 4:13 ). The sons of Zion will become like a warrior's sword against the sons of Greece ( Zec 9:13 ). Sheep of the flock will one day be made like proud war horses ( 10:3 ). These predictions are set in a postexilic scenario. Possibly second century b.c. successes of the Maccabees and even recent triumphs of Israeli forces in modern history are partial fulfillments of these events.

Many of the prophets foretold overconfident, empty hopes of nations who felt that Jerusalem would be an easy conquest ( Isa 29:7-8 ; Eze 38-39; Zech 12-14). Such unrealistic expectations are compared by Isaiah to a hungry man who dreams he is at a banquet. Just when defeat seems assured the Divine Warrior will appear on behalf of his people ( Isa 63:1-5 ; Rev 19:11-21 ).

In this final conflict the battle is conspicuous by its absence. There is no fight! Dramatically the two forces come together. Where one would expect to see the onset of hostilities, there is the simple narrative statement that the enemy leadership is seized. Summarily, with no fanfare, they are simply thrown into the lake of fire ( Rev 19:20 ). Rank and file are systematically killed with the sword that comes from the mouth of the lone horseman (v. 21).

Warfare in the New Testament. Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem celebrated his past and future defeat of the powers of darkness. He fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 of the gentle king riding on a donkey ( Matt 21:5 ). People cry out portions of Psalm 118, saying, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" ( Mark 11:9-10 ). Psalm 118 is regarded by many Old Testament scholars as a celebration of a king returning from a military victory.

In Psalm 118:12 the king states his enemies surrounded him like bees. In the name of the Lord he cuts them off. Shouts of victory go up in the tents of the righteous (vv. 12-15). Christ had recently defeated demons (Mark 9) and death (John 11). He had told his disciples he saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven ( Luke 10:18 ).

Upon his triumphal entry the divine warrior goes straight to his temple and cleanses it ( Matt 21:12 ) of the money makers ( Mal 3:1-4 ). His subsequent death and resurrection were described by apostle Paul as a military victory over the powers of darkness. He disarmed the powers and authorities. He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross ( Col 2:15 ). Thereupon victorious, as the conquering king in Psalm 68:18, he ascended on high, he led captives in his train, and he gave gifts to men ( Eph 4:8 ).

Just before his death Christ foresaw the awful tragedy of the revolts against the Romans and wept over the city ( Luke 19:41-44 ). On the way to the cross he told the women not to weep for him but for themselves and for their children who would be caught up in this awful pogram ( Luke 23:27-30 ). In the Olivet Discourse he warned his disciples to flee when they saw Jerusalem encompassed about with armies ( Luke 21:20-24 ).

His warning of false messiahs coming in his name was probably fulfilled in part by Bar Kosiba, who in a.d. 132 styled himself as "son of the star" (Bar Kochbah). Even the great rabbi Akivah believed he was the messiah. These revolts initiated the trampling of Jerusalem by the Gentiles ( Luke 21:8 Luke 21:24 ). He foretold that wars and rumors of wars would be commonplace throughout the age ( 21:9-11 ).

All this proves to be a model and an illustration of the endtime conflict of the people of God. Christ did not believe the end would come in his day. He believed these things would be the beginning of sorrows ( Matt 24:8 ). One who reads the Olivet Discourse is like a person watching the landscape and seeing two mountain ranges. They appear to be close together when in fact they may be miles apart.

Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans of the first century is the close mountains. Far off in the distance is another, high cluster of peaks. This is the final war at the end of the age, which will be attended by a great deal of supernatural phenomena ( Luke 21:25-28 ). It is this endtime generation that will not pass away until all is fulfilled ( Matt 24:34 ).

The horrors of the final conflict are introduced in the Book of Revelation by four eerie horsemen ( 6:1-8 ). The first phase of war is quick, easy conflict with the bow, a long-range weapon. Then comes wholesale slaughter with the red horse. The black horse introduces famine and rationing. The final horse brings ravaging death to the home front by starvation, disease, and wild animals. These are only the beginning of sorrows.

The arch criminal called the "antichrist" will even have power to wage war against the saints and overcome them ( Rev 13:7 ; cf. Dan 7:21-25 ). The sudden arrival of the Ancient of Days will, however, abruptly terminate his activities. At that time the saints of the most high will be given sovereignty and dominion over the earth ( Dan 7:26-27 ).

In the meantime the Christian life is metaphorically compared to warfare. Timothy is exhorted to endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ ( 2 Tim 2:3 ). He is encouraged to fight the good fight of faith and hold on to eternal life ( 1 Tim 6:12 ). This conflict, however, is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of this dark world, against spiritual forces in heavenly realms ( Eph 6:12 ). Paul warns the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God into this conflict (6:10-15).

The church at Corinth was told that the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world. They have divine power to demolish strongholds. These strategic assets can take into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ ( 2 Cor 10:1-5 ).

Paul Ferguson

See also Devote, Devoted; Discipline; Judgment; Justice; Providence of God; Punishment; Vengeance; Violence

Bibliography. D. Christensen, Transformations of the War Oracle in Old Testament Prophecy; R. Gonen, Weapons and Warfare in Ancient Times; M. Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior; G. von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel; Y. Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'War, Holy War'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.