The Ethics of Holy War

How should Christians interpret Old Testament passages describing God's commands for Israel to engage in holy war?

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The conquest was a judgment. One can look at those commands, you know, leave no survivors—women and children—show them no mercy. On the human plane that can look like genocide. But the root of that, I think, is to be found in Genesis 15 when the Lord promises Abram that in the fourth generation his descendants are going to come back and have this land because the sinfulness of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. The point there is, then, that the Lord is going to allow the Canaanites to continue to have their life, have their culture, have their distorted religion worshiping Baal and the fertility cult and all the rest of it. The time would come when they were so far gone in sin that they would not respond to God no matter how attractive he made himself to appear, or how clearly it was from what he had revealed that he's the God you ought to worship. The proof of this is found in Rahab because she can say to the spies, "We all know what Yahweh your God has done to the Egyptians and to Sihon and Og, the Amorite kings." Well, if they all know that, why don't they show up in Hebrews 11 as she does on the honor roll of faith? And so, it makes the point that they're so far gone in sin that their reaction to the Lord will not—I mean, it's a no-brainer that they ought to affiliate with him. Instead, they're afraid and they resist, and that's a sign that their consciences are seared, if I could put it that way. Jesus makes the same point in Luke—He says, "When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?" And the answer implicitly is "no." And so, faith is the criterion. When faith is no longer possible, the complete judgment is justified. That was true in the conquest. It will be true at the end of the age. And, as for the women and children and especially, perhaps, you might look at the infants and say, "Well, how can that be right?" We have to agree, I think, with Abraham before Sodom and Gomorrah when he asked the question in Genesis 18:25, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?" And the answer is "yes." God knew what those children would have grown up to be if they had been allowed to live. And, of course, the fact that the Israelites did let some of them live and they continued to be a thorn in their sides shows that this was true.

Answer by Dr. Jeffrey J. Niehaus

Dr. Jeffrey J. Niehaus is Senior Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Dr. Niehaus has published commentaries on Obadiah and Amos for the Baker Book House three-volume commentary on the minor prophets, as well as a volume in the area of biblical theology, God at Sinai (Zondervan).

Dr. Niehaus is an ordained independent Baptist minister.