On 2 April 2015, Al-Shabab gunmen stormed into the Garissa University College in Kenya and killed at least 147 students. The terrorists entered the college grounds during early morning prayer services. Collins Wetangula, the vice-chairman of the student union, he could hear the gunmen opening doors and asking if the people who had hidden inside whether they were Muslims or Christians. “If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot,” he said. Al-Shabab is an Islamic terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda and is based in Somalia. El-Shabab is “fighting for the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia.” Such large-scale violence and murder as seen in Kenya rightly upsets us. But what about the large-scale violence and murder seen in the Old Testament and particularly in the book of Joshua?
For example, in Joshua chapter 8, God commanded the Israelites to kill everyone in the village of Ai and the entire village was devoted to destruction. How are we to think about “Holy War” in the Old Testament where God told his people to kill entire towns as they took possession of the Promised Land?
When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 8:24)
Are Christians called to be terrorists? What are we to think of Holy War in the Bible as Christians?
1. Holy War teaches us that God judges sin
Genesis 15:16 and Deuteronomy 9:3-4 teaches us that the possessing of the Promised Land and the killing of its inhabitants was the judgment of God on the sin of it’s people.
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13-16)
3 Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you. 4 “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. (Deuteronomy 9:3-4)
We must not think that these people were innocent bystanders and that God was unjust to bring his judgement on their sin.
Leviticus 18:21-25 gives us examples of the sin of the land’s inhabitants:
21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion. 24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
We sometimes think that we world is out of control and that sexual sin, moral wickedness and evil is going unpunished. We are tempted to think that there will be no justice. The Bible tells us that no sin, no wickedness and no evil will ever go unpunished – Israel’s Holy War demonstrates that. The Judgement on Jericho (Joshua 6) and Ai is simply a small foretaste of the Great Day of Judgment when God will hold all to account. Either Jesus has borne God’s judgment for us or we will bear it on that day for we too have all fallen short of God’s good standards. Israel was God’s tool in bringing God’s judgment.
2. Holy War teaches us that God’s people are called to be holy
Deuteronomy 7 gives us another reason for God’s command of total destruction of the land’s inhabitants:
1 “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you… You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. 6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6)
The inhabitant of the land did not pose a military challenge, but a theological challenge.
16 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, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction 18 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 20:16-18)
3. Holy War teaches us that God is the Giver and Taker of life
Whether you die violently in Ai at age 27 or peacefully in your old-age in your bed at a retirement home, God is in sovereign control over life and death. We must affirm, of course, that God cannot sin and does not condone sin, but He can and does still use sinful situations to accomplish his good purposes for his people. We need to remember who is sovereign over life and death. Is it doctors, medicine, sickness, terrorists, demons, car accidents or hospitals? No, God is the ultimate giver and taker of life. We still take medicine, go to doctor and drive safely because God use means and providence in his world, but never think that death catches God by surprise. When we think about Holy War in the Old Testament, we must remember that God gave all life in the first place and it is his right to take that life at any time.
4. Holy War teaches us that Israel was unique in the progressive revelation of God
God in no way condones Holy War or Jihad today. In God’s revealing himself to us in history, God used Israel at a specific time in a very specific place as his tool for judgment. However, since Jesus, God’s people are no longer one nation, but an international family made up of people from all the nations.
In South African history some of the Voortrekkers considered themselves to be God’s holy nation, like Israel in the Old Testament. They saw the Transvaal as the Promised Land and used “theological” arguments for their Groot Trek (Big Journey).
Some nationalistic or ethnic groups still hold the belief today that they are the special people of God. But the Bible tells us that now, in Jesus, there is an international people from all the nations and therefore no one nation can call itself God’s special nation or God’s tool for judgment. Israel in the Old Testament was unique.
The commands applicable for us today is to do no murder; to love our enemies; to care for the vulnerable and foreigner; and to pray for those who persecute us.
In the next post I continue to think of the implications of Holy War for Christians.
Photo credit: http://pixabay.com/