Holy Wars

Matt Connally

Matt Connally is a pastor in the United States. He received an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Bachelors of Journalism from The University of Texas, where he served as editor of The Daily Texan from 1991-92. He has also worked with Campus Crusade for Christ for several years both in the United States and Asia.

What kind of war is the Prince of Peace engaged in, and how might that compare with Islamic Jihad?

 When in the 8th century B.C. the prophet Isaiah talked about the coming birth of the Prince of Peace, Israel was in the midst of a war. In fact, Isaiah made the prophecy while rebuking the king in Jerusalem for making a political alliance for the war rather than trusting God to fight for them. (Isaiah 7-9) Later Isaiah described the Deliverer, the one who would fight for Israel, as appearing to wear crimson clothes because he was covered in the blood of his enemies. (Isaiah 63:1-6) And when that same Deliverer, Jesus Christ, came and walked on the earth he told his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Is there any comparison between those words and the modern war that America is engaged in? What exactly is the biblical idea of a holy war? As the United States prepares to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, we invariably justify it with popular moral and geo-political arguments, but we must remember that many across the globe see America as a Christian nation, and see the fight with America as a holy war. Indeed, that is what al-Qaeda believed when it instigated the 9/11 attacks.

How should Christians see it? We will first consider why God commanded the Israelites at one time to engage in a holy war, destroying everything in the Promised Land—men, women, children, and animals, saving alive “…nothing that breaths.” Then we will consider how that war compares to the Islamic idea of holy war. And finally we will briefly ask whether there is a biblical justification for war today.

In the end, Jesus Christ will be exalted as the Prince of Peace.

1. What justified the Old Testament proclamation of holy war?

When God sent the Israelites in to take the land of Canaan (modern day Palestine, which is basically comprised of Israel and the Palestinian territories), he told them to completely annihilate all the Canaanite tribes.

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:6-18)

To many modern ears this sounds nothing short of murderous and barbaric and beyond immoral. How on earth can it be seen as holy? There are several things to consider in answer to that question.

1.1 Death is never “natural”, but is always under God’s sovereignty.

According to the Bible, God takes complete responsibility for all death—not just death due to natural disasters, diseases, old age, or…holy war. From the fall of man in Genesis 3 onward, “the wages of sin is death.” Whether it was the flood in Noah's day or the raining of fire on Sodom & Gomorrah or the Holocaust victims of WWII or the AIDS victims in Africa, even if it was not "his fault" God as Creator has the first and last word on it all. And his word is the offer of eternal life: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

That is to say that, according to the Bible, eternity is what matters. Whether a person lives 8 hours or 80 years is as nothing compared to where they will spend eternity.

Thus the more biblically relevant question might be, “Did God send all those Canaanites to hell, or were a number of them taken to heaven—perhaps at least the children?” Exploring the answer to this is certainly another topic for another day, but one point should be emphasized: we have to let God be God. The Bible says that we have an overwhelming desire to be the judges of good and evil—to be like God. (Genesis 3:5) But the only rational recourse is to leave judgment up to the Creator. Indeed, the Bible says that our knowledge of justice is an aspect of God’s revelation of himself.

At one point Moses asked God if he could see him. God told him no, that Moses would die if he saw God in all his glory. But he told Moses that he would hide him in a cleft of the rock on the mountainside, and then he would pass by and let Moses see his back. And of all the things that God said when he did that, what did he say?

And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exodus 33:19)

If we want to see God, the author of justice (which is meaningless if it is temporal), then we must let God be God. His intention and plan is for life to be eternal. (We should note that modern science struggles mightily to try to explain death by old age. See the LeaderU article, Why do we have to die? at http://www.leaderu.com/articles/why_die.html)

1.2 God made it abundantly clear to the Israelites that they did not deserve to live any more than the Canaanites did, or even than their Egyptian slave-masters did.

Again, the wages of sin is death, and all have sinned. Just because God told the Israelites to take the land of Canaan, that did not mean that they were in and of themselves morally superior to the Canaanites. To say the least, they also were still going to die as the wages for their sin.

Even when God brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, he let them know that it was not because they deserved it or because he loved them more than the rest of the world. When he brought the last plague on Egypt, killing all the first born males, the Israelites had to put the blood of a lamb on their homes in order to be “passed over”. Yes, they were suffering unjust bondage, but they still were not any more righteous than their oppressors. Something had to die in their place.

This pointed to Jesus Christ, God’s Passover Lamb. (John 1:29-34; 1 Corinthians 5:7) In other words, if there is to be justice in the world then someone has to pay the price for all the injustice. God created the world and loves the world, so he will pay the price by the blood of his own son.

When the Israelites came into the Promised Land, all their first-born sons—the ones who would have died but for the Passover Lamb—had to be represented by men who were serving lifetime duty as servants at the Temple, offering sacrifices and making atonement for the peoples’ sins. Now rather than using those first-born as priests, God instead used one of the twelve tribes, the Levites. Thus in Numbers 3 we read that when a census showed that there were more first-born males in Israel than there were males among the Levites, God told the Israelites to pay a ransom for the extras (Numbers 3:40-51). This emphasized that God had used the blood of the Lamb to purchase for himself a people who would then show the world how he is worshiped in spirit and in truth.

The purpose was not to reward or exalt the Israelites, but to make them a light to the nations—a revelation of God that he is both holy and merciful, and the Deliverer of the afflicted and the needy. We all deserve death as the wages of our sin, but we are slaves of that sin and so God offers us redemption thru the cleansing blood of Christ. When Jesus came on the scene, he never pulled any punches on man’s depravity, and often talked about hellfire and the wrath of God. This only served to magnify both God’s holiness and his love:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

Saved from what? Saved from the wrath of a holy God against our wickedness.

1.3 God made it abundantly clear that the conquest was his doing, for the purpose of revealing his name to the world.

The Canaanites had the long bow, the iron chariot, and a trained army. By contrast, the Israelites had nothing but faith in their Deliverer. Even with the odds stacked so heavily against them, God still at times use very unusual means to magnify his wonders, such as causing the walls of Jericho to collapse after the choir lead Israel’s army in singing as it marched around the city. (Joshua 6)

The purpose was not to show favoritism, but rather to show the world who God was: yes, he was a God who gave new life to the oppressed, but he was also a holy God who could not tolerate compromise with sin. So he did not want Israel made impure by mixing with and being influenced by the Canaanites, who indulged in all sorts of heinous wickedness from child sacrifice to bestiality (Leviticus 18). The purpose was not to exalt the Israelite people but rather to exalt God as holy.

All that is to say that just as God used the Flood of Noah’s day to bring judgment, and just as be brought fire from heaven to bring judgment upon Sodom & Gomorrah, and just as he uses old age to bring judgment on many others (Psalm 90), so also at one time he used Israel to bring judgment upon the people of Canaan. News about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt spread, so when they did come into the land of Canaan the people there knew that it was the God who was leading them (Joshua 2:10-11). Yet very few of them repented of their ways and turned to him.

But God wanted His people completely set apart, so that all nations could look and know what he was like and how to relate to him. He wanted to reveal his holiness and mercy to a fallen world and, in particular, to reveal “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

There were other wars during the Old Testament times, but at the root of them all was this purpose.

2. How does this compare to the Islamic idea of holy war?

Islamic Clerics and Imams invariably claim that all Muslims are “people of the Book”, meaning the Bible. So what is the relationship between Islam and the Judeo-Christian faith? And how do the Koran and the Bible compare, particularly in regards to holy war? I will not even try to explain the Koran’s teaching on war, much less explain how that teaching is interpreted by various sects of Islam. However, I will point out a couple of very significant differences between the Koran and the Bible—differences which will eviscerate any connection between Islamic holy war and Old Testament holy war.

2.1 The Koran’s authority over the Bible is entirely arbitrary, with no historical root whatsoever.

To sum it up very simply: one day a man (the prophet Mohammad) appeared on the scene and said, “An angel told me what really happened,” and all at once the historical records and eyewitness accounts in the Bible were dramatically edited.

It is popular to talk of the relationship between Islam and Judaism as sibling rivalry. The two faiths even claim to stem from two brothers—Islam from Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, and Judaism from Abraham’s second son, Isaac. However, the two claims could not be more different. Whereas Jewish history relies on genealogies and historical records and eyewitness accounts stretching back over four millennia, Islamic history sprang up all at once in the seventh century A.D. In editing the Bible, the Koran does not offer a single eyewitness or historical record or even genealogy. Thus although the relationship between the Arab peoples and the Semitic peoples could perhaps be compared to sibling rivalry, the same cannot be said of the two faiths of Islam and Judaism. In short, if a stranger suddenly introduces himself to you and says, “I’m your brother and we grew up together,” something is amiss.

In the Bible, history is never revealed by angels but is always based upon eyewitness accounts passed down orally and by written record. Angels reveal the future, never the past. The Bible was written by 40 authors (from statesmen to fishermen) over the span of 1600 years (plus an even older oral history) in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) on three different continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). By contrast, the Koran is based entirely upon what the prophet Mohammed said that an angel told him. His followers wrote down his teachings, and Muslims believe their writings were divinely inspired. Thus Mohammed suddenly, dramatically changed the historical records while adding nothing to them.

All that is to say that the Koran’s relationship with the Bible, including its notion of Jihad or struggle (the name Israel means “God struggles” or “struggles with God”), is entirely arbitrary and must be taken on blind faith.

2.2 Islam does not have a salvation-historical narrative, and furthermore denies the Bible’s salvation-historical narrative.

Among other things that Mohammad’s teaching changed in the Bible, the Passover was excluded and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ were pronounced, at best, a misunderstanding. Those two edits alone render our understanding of the historical meta-narrative of the Bible, including its wars, completely meaningless.

From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible forms a grand narrative of God’s glory, the climax of which is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (A summary of this is given in four different ways in the article The Historical Meta-narrative of the Gospel, at http://www.leaderu.com/articles/historical.html) If we take out or change one part, it skews the whole message. If we take the Passover out of the Old Testament, or even fail to emphasize it, at least two things dramatically change. One is that the Israelites are seen as superior to their adversaries, without the need for payment for their own sins (symbolized by the Passover Lamb). The second is very much related to the first: their deliverance from slavery no longer foreshadows Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So it should come as no surprise that in addition to leaving out the Passover, the Koran also denies the crucifixion in the New Testament.

And if the Israelites are presented as, in and of themselves, more deserving than and morally superior to their adversaries, then war becomes self-serving. And that is a recipe for chaos.

3. Is there a biblical justification for war today?

So where does all this leave us today? Is there a biblical justification for modern war? On the one hand, the New Testament is entirely focused on the eternal and has little to say about striving for temporary peace on earth. For example, Jesus does not call for the abolition of political/economic slavery, or for the overthrow of tyrants, etc.

On the other hand, that certainly does not mean that Christians should not give their lives to such things. It just means that in everything we do we point to the Kingdom of Heaven, where the Prince of Peace reigns. After all, if justice and peace are only temporary or generational, then they are about as meaningful as a one-night stand.

For an example of biblical arguments for just war, see the Christianity Today article A Time for War?