Explaining holy war in the Bible

One of the chief battlegrounds for Christian apologetics is concerning moral issues in our society today. These questions are emotional questions that criticise Christianity on the grounds that it teaches old fashioned values or even immoral values. In this article I will discuss the classic issue of the presence of holy war in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God gives instructions to the nation of Israel to wipe out their enemies, even their women and children. So how may we respond to this?

This certainly is a difficult question which is not to be downplayed at all. However, I would start by keeping the question in its place. This question is concerning the Bible’s morality or truthfulness, and so it is secondary to the main question of the truthfulness of Christianity, which starts with merely the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, as usually it is atheists who bring this question up, the atheist may be asked on what basis is holy war wrong in a world which has relied on survival of the fittest for our origin? Of course, atheism in just the twentieth century had its own “holy wars” to account for.   Vox Day writes: The total body count for the ninety years between 1917 and 2007 is approximately 148 million dead at the bloody hands of fifty-two atheists, three times more than all the human beings killed by war, civil war, and individual crime in the entire twentieth century combined.  The historical record of collective atheism is thus 182,716 times worse on an annual basis than Christianity’s worst and most infamous misdeed, the Spanish Inquisition. It is not only Stalin and Mao who were so murderously inclined, they were merely the worst of the whole Hell-bound lot.” So these aren’t great records for what happens when religion is replaced by atheism.

However, let us move to giving a positive response to the question. We can present a response by moving through 5 questions about it.

1.Why does God take lives in the Bible? God has right to take people’s lives as he sees fit. He is not obliged to give anyone 80 years of life. He gave people their life, he does have the right to take it whenever he should choose. So it is silly to call God a mass murderer, as if He is subject to some human rights law which says he has to give people 80 years of life.

2. Was it reasonable for God to kill the Canaanites? The reason for this judgement in OT is not their race- it is sin. In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their Canaanite fertility gods: adultery, child abuse, bestiality, and incest. Worst of all, Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. So, holy war is a matter of God judging these people for their depraved level of sinfulness.

3. Why did God use a holy war as opposed to another method of judgement? The manner of their destruction probably reflects something of the destruction they had wreaked on others. See Judges 1:7- “ThenAdoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” Obviously, the Canaanite nations were saturated in brutal and barbaric wars with one another, if this king has done this to 70 others. God has had enough and is stepping in to bring his judgement on them in the only language which they will understand.

4. Why the killing of everyone, including women and children? For starters, there is good evidence to suggest that the language used may have been deliberately hyperbolic- it probably didn’t literally mean everyone. It’s like us saying we’re going to walk all over our opponents in a football match- it’s not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, most would have been driven out of the land rather than actually killed. However, the killing that did take place was the nature of holy war- communicating in their cultural language God’s total rejection of their culture. An analogy may be that during wartime, things are done which ordinarily would never be contemplated-eg bombing towns risking civilians’ lives. In World War 2, after Hitler began bombing hospitals and synagogues in London- there was only 1 way to communicate with him- to flatten his own country. It’s easy for us now to look down our nose at such a strategy but when you are on the receiving end of such ruthless and barbaric tactics from such an enemy, you cannot merely respond with gestures of peace and good will. So the judgement of the Canaanites may seem harsh according to our modern sanitized standards, but may have been the only thing to communicate to these hardened peoples that their sin was no longer going to be tolerated. 

5. Does this not give religious people a precedent for violence today? For example, if I thought God told me to kill someone today, should I do it? No, that is like deciding to murder a German today because I read a history of an assassination attempt taken against Hitler in WW2.  The instructions given about holy war were for a very specific time and situation- they were not general rules for normal life. So if I thought God commanded me to murder someone or go to war: this would go against whole thrust of scripture, and contradict many commands of scripture. I would therefore conclude it is far more likely I am being deceived in thinking God told me to do this.

The challenge about holy war in the Bible is certainly a difficult one. However, when thought through properly in terms of its historical context we can see the reasons why such unpleasant historical accounts may be present in our Bible.