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God and War: Then and Now

Jonathan has been writing since 1995 about various topics, from movie reviews, works of fiction and media commentaries to Bible sermons.

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A person walks into a crowded marketplace and activates an explosive device, yelling "allahu akbar", or "God is the greatest", indicating their belief that God approves of what they're about to do. On the other side of the planet, an internet blogger writes an article about why Jesus is really a pacifist, liberal hippie. So, what gives? As with many things, the truth is more nuanced.

The ancient nation of Israel received the Ten Commandments, which included the rule "You must not murder". Of course, as Israel and all civilized nations today acknowledge, death in warfare is not the same as murder. In fact, in Romans Paul said that "the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God" & "if you are doing what is bad, be in fear, for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword". As a nation, Israel also had an army, and God blessed most wars they engaged in. But were they any different than wars of other nations? Yes. We can focus on three areas: method, justification and purpose.

When it comes to methods of warfare, the historical record is a sad one, from the cruel and unusual practices of the Assyrians, to instances of sadism on civilians in modern times. Even where violence isn't concerned, there are countless stories of soldiers seeking out prostitution while overseas as well as fathering children with local women and abandoning them. But Israel was truly unique. Not only did God specifically forbid the random desecration of the land, he also required that if a soldier liked a local girl, he HAD to marry her. Rape and torture were not acceptable in God's army.

The second difference is justification. The nations that Israel replaced were thoroughly depraved. As part of their demon worship, they burned alive their own children, and beat drums to drown out their screams. They also practiced perversions that broke down the family unit, and when that happens, society as a whole breaks down. Clearly God was right to say, "you must defeat them. You should without fail devote them to destruction. You must conclude no covenant with them". Of course this was speaking as a whole, because then as now, God is always open to dealing with individuals who choose to follow Him, and we see this in the case of Rahab and the Gibeonites, who put faith in God's power and joined Israel.

This point of justification raises a question: Weren't there other nations on Earth that had moral issues? Yes, but that leads us to the third point: purpose, and it wasn't God's purpose to conquer and fix the whole world through Israel's warfare. His purpose was to provide a relative safe-haven for the coming of the Messiah, a glimmer of true worship in a fallen world. We know that ancient Israel ultimately proved unfaithful, but imagine how much worse it would have been if they just moved right in alongside the Canaanites, assimilating to their morals, or lack thereof? The wars God commissioned were crucial to that not happening.

Eventually Christ did come and fulfill His purpose, paving the way for spiritual Israel, a new nation, a lasting one, one not defined by borders or by physical armies. The Israelites of old faced enemies who were immoral and Godless, and this would spread to Israel like a virus if they let it. We too face that enemy. Paul said, "we do not wage warfare according to what we are in the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly", & we're also encouraged to put on our pieces of spiritual armor.

So as we've seen, God has never been a pacifist, but He is merciful, and does things for the lasting good of everyone. Religious extremists are responsible for the death of millions, but so are many communist, atheist regimes. Clearly, it's imperfect men who bring suffering to the innocent through warfare. So how comforting to know that Christians have the perfect commander to follow into spiritual battle.

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