[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a monthly series discussing the relationship between the perennial issue of war and the Christian worldview. Each segment is a partial look at the complex problem. To view the previous article, click here.]
War is a reality. It’s a bloody reality, a hateful, disgusting, repellent reality, but a reality nonetheless. While there is a time to kill, this allowance is not open-ended. Human nature being what it is, once the dogs of war are unleashed, our sinful nature makes itself known all too readily in dignity-desecrating attacks on our enemy. As tempting as this is in the heat of battle, the Christian worldview and God’s Word deny us this option.
While the previous part of this series dealt with what the New Testament did not say about the morality of war, this time we’ll look at what the Old Testament did say. When we study its accounts, far from being ghoulish and gleeful about war, God’s Word offers a restraining hand to our flawed tendencies to kill without question.
Let’s admit it. Reading the Old Testament on war is troubling. It sounds as though God excuses or even commands murder, and it’s not always easy to sense the connection between the Wars of the Lord with the Lord who is the Lamb. Even for those who believe there are answers to be found, questions endure.
While we will return to them later, we can, for the moment, set aside some of the most troubling examples. Moses’ and Joshua’s wars were divine commands explicitly for that time and place, and we have no business extrapolating these to our contemporary conflicts. Others, like the wars of the Judges and later kings, have illustrative power, but, here too, we must be cautious as they are more descriptions of what did happen than prescriptions for what should happen.
Deuteronomy 20, on the other hand, has the closest thing to moral guidelines for war in the Bible. Contrary to our expectation, God is not granting permission for our impulses to run free but insisting that we bind up our sin in this most tempting venue of war.
Now, if you’ve read the passage, this may seem a strange thing to suggest. After all, it says, “And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword.” Later, it declares that women and children can be taken as plunder. How can this be anything but barbarity? Taken out of context, that’s exactly what it sounds like. But, in reality these verses command the very opposite to what we think.
In this historical moment, warfare was endemic. Small communities endured life as prey for larger powers who gloried in their destruction while raiders prowled the outskirts of settled villages taking slaves at will. There was no Geneva Convention for POWs and no expectation for captured civilians but death in the most horrible ways imaginable. For the strong, war was a way of life. For the weak, it meant only death.
The contrast with the biblical message could not be more profound. What we see there is a series of checks on the customs of the day.
In place of warriors living for the fight, God pushed the Israelites to seek every opportunity to live in peace. He offered a list of conscientious objections for Israelite troops and insisted that an offer of peace precede any actual combat. This was more than a chance for the fearful to step aside or for Israel to avoid the costs of war. This was a reminder that Shalom was the goal.
Even if the enemy had committed a grave evil, the Israelites were to seek with their fellow man the peace that their sin had broken. The good things of life – marriage, home, work – these were the site of God’s blessings. These were found in peace, not the thrill of the fight. War had its tragic place in life, but it was never to be its totality.
Now, if their enemies refused peace, battle followed swiftly. After a presumed victory, all adult males were killed and the women and children taken as “plunder.” This is hard. From our cultural perspective, it sounds like God is saying to kill ordinary folks, butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers, and to do to other civilians what we know too well was, and is, done to women and children in the wake of war.
However, again we need to look beyond our contemporary Western society and consider how this sounded to its original audience. In a tribal society, adult males are combatants. You can see this in the Bible during censuses where they’re counting how many men are “able to go to war.” In the case of a city that had not surrendered, we’re talking about active enemy forces, not noncombatants.
Similarly, to our ears, the “plunder” of women and children sounds like an invitation to pillage to their evil hearts’ content. However, considering sexual assault and manstealing were capital offenses in ancient Israel, this means the opposite of what we think. This isn’t designating women and children as fair-game; it’s saying they’re off limits, militarily speaking. The men, as a genuine threat, could be killed, but women and children, as noncombatants, were not legitimate targets.
We see something similar when Moses talks about trees at the end. What seems like a random arboreal conversation emphasizes the limits of war. Moses tells the Israelites that they are free to use local lumber to build weapons, but not the fruit trees. He is both disavowing any “total war“and emphasizing that, for the people of God, military actions must be limited to those things which constituted an ongoing threat, never an open-ended excuse for violence.
The Bible recognizes the fallenness of man: Human sin will lead to war, but the sinful impulses of even the best of us must be bound by principles, lest our passions seduce us to mirror our foes. When the clouds of war gather, those guided by God’s Word must make every effort to avoid the fight if possible. But, if and when it comes, war must never be seen as a goal or good in itself. We must never let our cause, even a just one, lead us to a place where we see in our enemy anything less than an equal – an image bearer of God yet tainted by sin.
Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973