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How do you respond to the conquests and wars in the Old Testament?

John Berea has an article about it on his web site.

Here’s his overview:

In the Old Testament are the military campaigns of Israel inconsistent with being led by a just and loving God, and inconsistent with his own commands?  Here, I would like to make the case for consistency and justness.

1. The nations of Canaan were evil, harming others, and needed to be stopped.  They had carried out incest with children/grandchildren and performed child sacrifice by fire. (Lev 18:6-30, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-10, Psalm 106:35, 37-38)  They launched unprovoked attacks on Israel (Ex 17:8-9, Num 21:1, Num 21:2-23, 33) and even guerrilla attacks against Israel’s “stragglers in the rear of the march when you were exhausted and tired.” (Deut 25:18)

2. Warfare language was likely rhetorical.  There are five reasons to support the rhetorical nature of language such as “completely destroy” (Hebrew תחרימו, literally “ban”) in Deut 20:17.  It likely meant a destruction of armed soldiers, buildings, and religious icons.

  1.  Semitic language professor and NIV, NAB, and ESV bible translator Richard Hess argues that Hebrew “ban” is “stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders” and “need not require that there really were children, senior citizens, or women there who were put to death” even when followed by the terms “men and women” (Joshua 8:25) or “young and old” (Joshua 8:25).
  2. In Israel’s destruction of enemies we see phrases like “left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” (Joshua 10:40, Judges 1:8).  But in Joshua 21:12-13 the author has no problem telling us these people were still there afterward: “if you ever turn away and make alliances with these nations that remain near you… God will no longer drive out these nations”.  In 1 Sam 15:3-4 Israel was to “strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have. Don’t spare them. Put them to death–man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike.”  In 15:8 Saul “executed all Agag’s people” and Agag himself was killed in 15:33.  But later in  1 Sam 27:8 we’re told they’re still there and ” had been living in that land for a long time”.  Hundreds of years later in Esther 3:1 we’re even told Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag.
  3. Most verses on the subject speak of “driving out” and “dispossessing” the land rather than language suggestive of genocide.  E.g. Num 33:51-53, in “the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images,  and demolish their high places.  You must dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it, for I have given you the land to possess it.”  It’s the same story in Lev 18:25, Num 23:31-32, Deut 6:19, 9:4, 18:12, Joshua 3:10, and 23:9.
  4. Jer 4:20 suggests inhabitants fled before armies arrived:  “At the sound of the horseman and bowman every city flees; They go into the thickets and climb among the rocks”
  5. Deut 7:22 specifically says that Israel was forbidden to “destroy them all at once” and instead they would be expelled “little by little”.

So either all of these verses contradict one another, or the conquest language was rhetorical.

3. Many of the “cities” were probably military outposts.  For example with Jericho and Ai, Richard Hess argues there are no references to noncombatants (apart from Rahab), no archaeological evidence of non-military use, the term melek (Hebrew מלכי)  for “king” of the cities often meant mean a military leader in Canaan (e.g. in Joshua 2:2), they were located at defensive positions, and Jericho and Ai weren’t described as a large city as Gibeon and Hazor explicitly were.

4. A just God requires wrath.  It’s not possible to have a God who is just but not wrathful–otherwise wrongdoers continue unabated. Paranormal investigator James Randi wrote in Skeptic Magazine, “I accuse the Christian god of murder by allowing the Holocaust to take place” yet Dawkins and Hitchens condemn God for judgment against the Canaanites.  Which is it? Ultimately the the problem is we view death as the ultimate judgment, when in the theological context of the bible it’s only a graduation to what’s next with accountability for what we’ve done with what we were given.

The four points are developed with links for support. If you get this question a lot, it’s a good resource to bookmark.

Also, if you’re looking for a short video to share, here is a 6-minute one featuring Frank Turek:

That’s from commenter WorldGoneCrazy. It’s really good.

8 thoughts on “How do you respond to the conquests and wars in the Old Testament?”

  1. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” – Hebrews 13:8

    We don’t need to run away from the OT God because of this. The Pre-Incarnate Christ was there pulverizing Sodom & Gomorrah right alongside the Father and Holy Spirit (the Three Persons of the Triunity don’t disagree), and they deserved every bit of it too. It was God’s Love that wiped out the world by Flood, S&G by fire, and the Canaanites by massacre – not love for the wicked, but love for their victims and the surrounding peoples. For those innocent unborn and born children who might have been killed when God’s Wrath was unleashed, they were raised to Eternal Life, but the wicked went to God’s Eternal Prison with No Parole.

    How about all of the verses about who (not just what) God hates? Many churchgoers are surprised to learn that God hates people too, not just sin. Do you think that God loved the wicked people of S&G, the Canaanites, those wicked evildoers before the Flood? Do you think that God loves all of those in Hell? How about sodomites and pro-aborts today? Does God love them? He makes provision for them to be saved, yes, but does He LOVE them? The Bible says “no.” (Find the verses.)

    You won’t get THAT sermon at most churches. :-)

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  2. Michael Heiser in “The Unseen Realm” lays out how Israel didn’t slaughter everyone, just those places that had giants (spotted during the spying out in Numbers 13), descendants of the nephilim of Genesis 6:1-2. Those genetics needed to be exterminated. That’s his theory.

    Have you run across this, WN? I see a lot of talk about Nephilim these days.

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      1. Heiser is a very knowledgeable Bible scholar with deep knowledge of hebrew along with the 2nd temple literature. Meaning books like Enoch, pseuda books and how it frames how they interpreted things in ancient days.

        He often writes things we see as odd. Focusing on how things were written as mytho history, it doesn’t mean it happened just when you told stories a certain way people understood this was some kind of spiritual being for example. Things lost on a modern reader.

        He does focus on how the conquest was about taking back areas of those that had gone too far on following false God’s into very dark acts. So the Canaan conquest had spiritual meaning as to where it focused.

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  3. There’s a guy you’ll like on YouTube. His channel is called Ancient Egypt and the Bible.

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  4. Even today we hear the language of conquest hyperbole in sports reports, where one team is said to have “annihilated” (or “slaughtered” or “crushed”, etc.) their opponents or crowds are described as “everyone” in the home team’s city, etc.

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