Understanding Holy War in the Old
Testament

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Question
How should Christians interpret Old Testament passages describing God's commands for Israel to engage in holy war?
Answer
I think one of the most difficult questions that Christians face when they read the book of Joshua is how they should take the passages commanding Israel to fight holy war. And it's very important to start with a good understanding of what holy war was and wasn't, but also to understand how radically the new covenant, the fullness of time, the coming of Christ has changed our response. So, holy war in the Old Testament represents the prosecution of God against unrighteousness and idolatrousness. It is a prefiguration of the final judgment, and it's not because Israel is intrinsically more holy than the Canaanites, but because the Lord has taken them to himself and redeemed them. Now they are to act according to God's purposes, to suppress and eliminate idolatry against God and great moral wickedness that existed among the Canaanites, such as child sacrifice and other things. But when we come to the new covenant, we realize that in the fullness of time, as all things, as the mystery becomes known in the full light of the revelation of the New Testament, we read that while we were yet enemies, Christ died for us. Apart from any action or provision on God's part, we are the Canaanites. But God has then, in Christ, put us to death so that, in fact, we are called to further die to ourselves to live to Christ. And then, we are called to prosecute God's purposes in the world, but as Paul says in Ephesians 6, in Christ, our war is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and the principalities and the spiritual forces that are at work against God. And so, the way God's holy army prosecutes holy war today is by self-sacrificing, loving those who persecute us, blessing them, loving our enemies, and it is in that way not only that we fulfill the law of Christ but that we win others to Christ. So, we prosecute holy war today by the tools of the gospel, the proclamation of the good news that Christ has died for sinners and that all who would put their faith and trust in Christ can be reconciled to God and no longer be at enmity with God, no longer to be alienated to God, but be reconciled to God. But it has to be through the ethical witness of God's people, the church, living out God's righteousness, and even more, the self-sacrificing love of God's people for those who do not know the Lord, because we can do more for those who do not know the Lord today than Joshua could. Joshua could only carry out God's final judgment, but we can bring the good news to those who are apart from God so that they can belong to the Lord and be part of his people.

Answer by Rev. Michael J. Glodo

Rev. Michael J. Glodo is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.