Principles of Holy War

Full Essay Title: Outline the theological grounds on which the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua call for the destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan by Israel during the occupation of the promised land.  Write a Christian response to this issue.  (2000 words).

Introduction

Part A

Warfare as described in Deuteronomy and Joshua is not merely war, it is holy war, and as such, it is lifted above the human plane, and takes on an altogether divine aspect.  The effects are the same – death and destruction; but the origination of it is from God, both at his direction and command, and under his leadership and control.  It is “not merely a human enterprise…..it is God’s war in which he himself is involved together with his covenant people” (Powell 1988, 2130).

However this idea can appear to be contrary to the Christian concept of God, and of the principles of the New Testament.  Howard says “One question that arises for many people is, ‘How can a holy, just, loving God have commanded such harsh actions?’  Many people today are repelled by what they see as a bloodthirstiness displayed by the Israelites and the God who had demanded the annihilation of the ‘herem’” (Howard 1988, 184).

In order to explain this apparent paradox, modern critics have placed the authorship of Deuteronomy centuries after the events recorded in it.  For example, Von Rad, speaking of the proposed annihilation of the Canaanite nations, says “Deuteronomy, being late, has, as a result of its theological viewpoint, a much more radical attitude on this matter than Israel had in the early days” (Von Rad 1966, 67).

It is not the purpose of this essay to discuss the authorship question, but it ought to at least be acknowledged.  The position taken in this essay is that of the Mosaic authorship, with a later editor.  McConville, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, after listing his reasons for such a “Mosaic” authorship (an important aspect of which is a comparison of the Israelite and Hittite treaty form), writes “In conclusion, the data cannot prove conclusively any of the dates canvassed for Deuteronomy.  But the evidence is consistent with its composition in the period following Moses’ death.  This may have been quite soon after, or within a few generations” (McConville 1994, 199).

It is therefore necessary to look at the theology of holy war so that we can better understand why war can be called “holy”.  This will be discussed under the following headings:

1. Reasons for the Canaanites’ utter destruction

2. Holiness essential for those engaged in holy war

3. Purpose of holy war

  1. Reasons for the Canaanites’ utter destruction

In Israel, all war was to be conducted under God’s leadership.  Deut 20:1-9 gives specific instructions for Israel’s conduct in war.  The most important aspect was that they were not to fear, “for the LORD God is with you” (Deut 20:1 NRSV).  There would be neither fear of the enemy nor guilt of atrocity under this command.

Merrill (1994, 102) says “Nothing is more integral to the waging of holy war than the placing of conquered lands and their peoples underherem’”; and Woudstra “This curse (Heb. herem) meant that something or someone was absolutely and irrevocably consecrated so that it could not be redeemed (Lev 27:28-29).  It also meant the object (person) was sentenced to utter destruction (Deut 13:16)”. (Woudstra 1981, 113).

It is important to understand the distinctions that are made in Deuteronomy 20, between verses 10-15 and 16-18.  Verses 10-15 show how Israel is to conduct warfare generally, and importantly, mercy was to be offered to every enemy before engaging in battle.  However in verses 16-18, which relate to Canaan specifically, there was to be no such offer, for all the inhabitants were under the ban, or herem (Deut 7:1-5).  The reason given for utter destruction was that these nations would teach Israel to worship their gods (Deut 20:18).

Deut 9:4-5 also explains that Israel was to destroy the Canaanite nations, not because of Israel’s righteousness but because of the Canaanites’ wickedness.  These verses show how God is going to fulfil the covenant promise made with Abraham (Gen 15:16) to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, and at the same time, to punish the Canaanite nations for their wickedness.  It would appear that “the iniquity of the Amorites” had reached its completion (Gen 15:16) and they were ready for judgment.

Further, Merrill says “We can add that the promise to Abraham included the provision that God would curse anyone who cursed Israel (Gen 12:3), and the Canaanites sought to destroy Israel on at least three occasions (Josh 9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5)”.  (Merrill 1994, 185).

So it is with good reason that a holy God brings unrelenting judgment on a wicked people.

Lilley, in discussing accepted forms of Near Eastern treaties, makes a very good observation, and an excellent reason, if it were true, why Yahweh insisted on annihilation.  He says: “Yahweh would not accept a place on a pantheon to deal on equal terms with the gods of other nations; much less would their representatives be allowed in his territory.  Therefore, not only is the worship of other gods not permitted, but the idea of treaty with the Canaanites is impossible; for such a treaty would involve reciprocal invocation of each other’s deities” (Lilley 1997, 8).

However, nowhere does the bible say that Israel was to make such a treaty of equality with anyone.  Rather, in Deut 20:10-15, Yahweh specifies the terms of any covenant made with the enemies of Israel.  The terms were surrender or (for the male population) die, with the women, children, livestock and spoil being taken as booty.  If surrender was accepted, then the whole population was to serve Israel at forced labour.

In fact, when the Hivites of the cities of Gibeon deceived the leaders of Israel into making a treaty with them, the treaty was made according to the conditions as specified in Deut 20:13, and the Gibeonites from that day became Israel’s servant (Josh 9:21, 23, 27).

  1. Holiness essential for those engaged in holy war

Joshua chapter 1 shows the requirements of all those who fought in the Lord’s army.  They were to be faithful to him and the law he had given Israel through Moses.  Howard says “The special emphasis at the time of Joshua was that Israel was to keep itself holy, undefiled, and the land itself was to be undefiled.  In the particular circumstances of the Israelites entering the long-promised land as a newly constituted nation, it was vitally important they do so uncontaminated by pagan worship” (Howard 1998, 183).

That Israel should sanctify themselves before they enter Canaan under the leadership of the Lord can be seen in the following examples.  They demonstrate the holiness of the undertaking

  1. In Josh 3:5, as Israel prepares itself for the coming conquest of Canaan, Jericho being the first enemy they face, Joshua tells the people “sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (NRSV). Then the Ark of the Covenant leads the people across the Jordan River, which God parts so that they can cross.
  2. In Joshua 5:14-15, a supernatural being appears, who identifies himself as “commander of the army of the LORD” (NRSV), and Joshua is commanded to “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (NRSV). Rea says “Not a mere vision, but an actual appearance of the pre-incarnate Son of God himself – a theophany” (Rea 1990, 212).
  3. Joshua ch 6 describes the remarkable capture, and subsequent destruction, of Jericho. The most significant thing is the army being led around the city by the priests carrying the Ark of the Lord.  Just prior to this (Josh 5:2-9), every male in Israel had been circumcised, and thus made ready to swerve the Lord, because “the warriors who came out of Egypt, perished, not having listened to the voice of the LORD” (5:6 NRSV)).  Once this new generation had been circumcised, the Lord said, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (5:9NRSV).

The story of Achan in Joshua ch 7 is most instructive, and shows that God is unbending in his demand for holiness in those who serve him, being no respecter of persons or nations.  In v11 God accuses Israel of breaking the covenant by taking items which were herem.  Even though it was Achan who had sinned, God held all Israel responsible.  Because they had taken items devoted to destruction, “They have become a thing devoted to destruction themselves” (v12 NRSV)).  When Achan was found to be the culprit, both he and his family were destroyed and the sin was removed from Israel: “Because he had violated God’s command concerning booty taken from Jericho, Achan found himself in the position of the inhabitants of Jericho: he himself was devoted to destruction.  He in effect had become a Canaanite by his actions” (Howard 1998, 183).

  1. The purpose of holy war

“God called Israel to witness to his power and uniqueness, by non-idolatrous worship; to his holiness, by an appropriate lifestyle; to his justice, by fair laws protecting the disadvantaged”.  As Israel was “a worshipping community”, the “stringent rules against idolatry…..must be read with the laws governing the conduct of festivals”; that divination and necromancy would be replaced with prophecy, “as befits the dignity of his creation”; and with his people “reconciled to himself in a covenant relationship”, “fear and uncertainty” would be replaced by “love and confidence”.  “Consistent with this is the strong emphasis…..on responsible self-government and stewardship of resources”.  In order to achieve this, Israel needed total control within her own borders (summarised from Lilley 1997, 9).

Thus we see the wisdom of a loving God preparing blessing and peace for his people, and through them, for all nations, for this was the goal of the Abrahamic covenant.  Woudstra aptly summarises all this by saying “Both lines, Israel as a blessing for all the nations and the enemy relationship between Israel and the nations, ought to be recognised as equally valid.  The one cannot be subordinated to the other without doing injustice to the full message of the Bible” (Woudstra 1981, 38).

Part B

How does a Christian respond to this issue?  It’s helpful to understand that God is sovereign, doing all that he wills, and none can say to him “What are you doing?” (Dan 4:34-35 NRSV).  It’s also helpful to understand that God is just.  Abraham said “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen 18:25 NRSV).  Therefore, in considering the concept of annihilating the total population of Canaan, we should have this understanding of God, and remember that he himself is the standard of justice and mercy.

Another consideration is that “By the standards of most cultures, the sins of Leviticus 18:6-23 are particularly heinous.  The evidence outside the bible confirms the biblical picture of a particularly debased culture in Canaan” (Howard 1998, 185).

Howard also points out that “for many years the Canaanites’ sins apparently would not justify the annihilation that would come when the Israelites took the land” (Howard 1998, 185).  Therefore it would be more unjust of God if he did not deal with Canaan as he did.  The New Testament repeatedly warns of God’s judgment against sin, and hell (Mk 9:44-48)) and the “lake of fire and sulfur” (Rev 20:10, 15 NRSV) are the destiny of all who disobey God.

It is also important to see that history has vindicated God’s warnings about Canaanite religious practices.  The Canaanites who remained in the land after the conquest did turn Israel aside from God with their religion, as Judges and the prophets testify, and Israel itself was finally ejected from the land, because they continued the vile practices of the Canaanites.  Further, it is interesting to note that the Canaanites of Phoenicia continued the same religion.  The great city of Carthage, begun as a North African trading colony founded by Tyre, became a centre of Canaanite religion until it was razed to the ground by Rome after the 3rd Punic War.  Thus it was that utter destruction was the only way to deal with such persistent wickedness.

Finally, it should be stressed that “herem” is not enjoined upon Christians.  The conquest of Canaan was a unique occurrence because of what God wanted to achieve there for his people.  The land of Canaan was intended to be “a rest” for Israel (Heb 3:16-18).  Yahweh alone was to be worshipped there.  The Canaanites were accursed, and thus devoted to destruction.  The land was to be cleansed of every accursed thing; not one thing was to remain.  Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 show us that Canaan typified heaven, the eternal rest for the people of God, and as such, “nothing accursed will be found there” (Rev 22:3 NRSV).

References:

Howard Jr, D.M. 1998, Joshua, NAC, Broadman and Holman, Nashville, Tennessee

Lilley, J.P.U. 1997, “The Judgment of God: the problem of the Canaanites”, Themelios, vol. 22, No.2, 3-12

Merrill, E.H. 1994, Deuteronomy, NAC, Broadman and Holman, Nashville, Tennessee

Powell, R.E. 1988, “War, Holy”, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. W.A.Elwell, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2130-2132

Von Rad, G. 1966, Deuteronomy, Old Testament Library, SCM Press, London, England

Woudstra, M.H. 1981, The Book of Joshua, NICOT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Wright, C. 1966, Deuteronomy, NIBC Old Testament Series, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts.

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