What were the characteristics of holy war in the Old Testament?
There are eleven characteristics of holy war. Another one of my lists, but I think you will like it.
1. First of all it was fought with no standing army. This is very clear. The Israelites did not have a standing army at all. That comes out in Deuteronomy 20 where the law is given that when the army gathers the commanders are to say, "Does anybody not want to fight. Anybody got married recently? They can go home. Anybody bought a piece of land recently? They can go home." There are all kinds of excuses. It is not a standing army, it is a pure volunteer operation and it is supposed to be people who really want to serve the Lord.
2. Then there is no pay for soldiers.
3. And no personal spoil or plunder. There has always been some way to pay armies in the history of humanity and most armies get some pay for enlisting and some pay for serving and then many, many armies in history, certainly all the ones we know about in the ancient world, were also given incentive pay. This incentive pay was in the form of plunder. This exists even up to modern times, very recent times, but the idea is this—if you are successful in battle, you may take and keep whatever you can carry off. Whatever it is—anything. If you can round up a bunch of people and take them as your slaves or wives or anything, you can do it. If you can find a lot of money you can take it and keep it and be rich. If you can find any animals or other possessions, anything you can gather up you can take and keep. So it is a tremendous incentive system. If people fight hard and win they can become instantly rich. It may well be that that person who was very intellectually capable and studied hard, got into seminary and then went on for further study perhaps, or whatever, but was not the greatest fighter would not fair well under this system. But somebody who said, "You want a fight, I'm ready," could really turn out to be quite a successful leader in the community with all those assets that had come because he said, "I don't like you." POW! It really was an interesting incentive system. This all eliminated for the Israelites. Read about it in Deuteronomy 20 and elsewhere. You cannot take any plunder. "It is all mine," says the Lord, "you've got to destroy it, you've got to eliminate it. You can't take anything for yourself, you're not allowed to. That's not what you're doing."
4. Furthermore, one could undertake this kind of war only for the conquest and defense of the Promised Land. You could not generally do it; it was not broadly allowed. You could not say, "We want a war," for whatever purpose. No. The only legitimate war in the Bible is war for the taking and holding of the Promised Land. That is the idea.
5. Furthermore, it cannot happen because a king says, "I want to go to battle." A king has no right to declare war. Moses cannot declare war, per say, it has to come from God.
6. And it has to come through a prophet. It is not a democratic thing where the nation can get together and take a vote and agree that we are going to battle or any tribe can decide or majority of tribes. No, it has to be revealed by the Lord, it is his war. It has to be announced by a prophet, not a priest, not a king, not a counsel.
7. And, very importantly, Yahweh does the real fighting. This is terribly important in the concept. The idea is that you as part of the Israelite army, and all the Israelites are an army; you certainly do indeed go through the motions. You arm yourself and you get out there and you yell things and so on, but basically it is God who does the fighting. This is expressed in many different ways. For example, in Judges 5 the Song of Deborah. Deborah puts it this way when she is talking about fighting a coalition of northern city-states under a general name Sisera. She says, "The stars fought against Sisera." It is her way of saying it was a heavenly war. You need to have God do the fighting. In the New Testament when Paul picks up the concept of holy war and uses it, he picks it primarily from a certain spot in Isaiah in terms of his direct vocabulary dependence and so on, in Ephesians and talks about what we call spiritual warfare. How does he say it? He says, "Look, don't be naive. The battle is not a matter of fighting flesh and blood so that if you defeat people somehow God's kingdom advances, this is a great spiritual battle on a different plain." He said, "This is a matter of principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in high places." So he says, "You got to arm yourself with God's armor." What people often misunderstand is this is my armor now. No, that is not what Paul says. Paul was following Isaiah who says, "God has on the breastplate of truth and the sword of righteousness and so on." In other words, you arm yourself by standing behind God and say, "Okay, I'm following, you fight." That is the way it works. Do not think you can defeat principalities and powers, you cannot. God defeats them for you. You just be faithful to God. So the whole concept of "spiritual warfare" has often been twisted in our day from what it was in Old Testament and even, I think, in the way that Paul tells it. It is a funny phenomenon. Yahweh does the fighting. He does the real fighting; the rest of it is going through the motions. Sure, do you put the defeated enemy to the sword? Do you eliminate the plunder and so on and burn everything? Sure, there are things that the troops do, they do not just stand there and say, "I'm imagining this." Of course they do not do that, but the essential fighting; the real victory is not theirs. They could not even do it. They are not strong enough, powerful enough, clever enough, trained enough to do it. It is Yahweh who makes it happen.
8. And it is therefore a religious undertaking. So self-denial including fasting is a big part of the deal. When you read ahead into 1 Samuel as many of you will be starting to do later this week or next, you will read about Jonathan and the Israelites are fighting a holy war with Saul leading it. It does not make a big issue about the fact that it is a holy war; it is just assumed that of course that is what the Israelites are doing. And Saul has declared a fast but Jonathan does not hear about it so Jonathan eats some honey because he is very hungry and when he eats the honey it is a big fuss because, "Hey! A crown prince is not keeping the fast. Here we are denying ourselves, the crown prince isn't." It is a big source of fuss but it is a demonstration of the fact that they were taking seriously the holy war including the self-denial aspect of fasting. By the way, in Scripture fasting is never an end in itself. You could fast for health reasons or something but it is never an end in itself. Fasting is always a prayer intensifier. That is what fasting is. Without going into all the details of how and so, that is why, that is what it is. You never fast by itself without prayer. Even if you think you will find some place that seems to say that like something in the book of Esther or whatever, it is really a misunderstanding. Fasting is always an intensifier of prayer. It makes a prayer especially urgent, especially significant because there is something about what you are praying about that is especially important to you. When David and his men do what they do even when they are being pursued by Saul, also in 1 Samuel, they are still using self-denial approaches, which is what you are supposed to do in holy war. You may remember that there is a story in 1 Samuel, if you do not remember it, you will come to it. I know some in this class have been taking this as graduates and ThM students so they know this stuff, but if you do not you will come to it. David and his men are very, very hungry; they have been on the run from Saul. They come to a place called Nob and that is where the high priest is at that time, because the tabernacle moved around some. So they come there and "We're terribly hungry," says David, "got any food?" The priest says, "Well, all I've got is the shewbread, we've got plenty of shewbread, the bread that we put out and bake symbolically and offer to God and then the priests eat it. But common people who are not priests can't eat this bread." He says, "Unless of course you've kept yourself from women." In other words if you are on holy war and you are following holy war then you have consecrated yourselves and among the self-denials is no sex. That was among the self-denials. Even in the New Testament Paul says that. "When you fast and pray that is the only time that a couple should not be together physically." He says, "Otherwise, you would be cheating one another." You say, "No I don't think so, not this month." "That is not what Christians do," He says. For fasting and prayer you say yes. You are not going to say, "Let's fast and pray and have sex." No, that somehow does not fit. Paul says, "No way, that won't work." He says, "Unless they have done that." David says, "We always do that." "Okay," He says, "you can have the shewbread." In other words you are consecrated by holy war just as if you were a priest and consecrated to eat the shewbread. Just little things like that you will find in a lot of places.
9. This is what seems hardest for most people to get—the idea of the total annihilation of the enemy. This seems very brutal. When you read the descriptions, you know, "Spare not a one of them, destroy them all, destroy their animals, burn everything." You say, "Wow, what kind of vicious behavior is this?" You must remember a couple of things. One, it is a war of judgment. God who knows right and wrong quite well has said, "I want to eliminate this Amorite culture." He does not say none of the children can go to heaven under two-years-old. None of that is said. We do not know anything about God's fairness in dealing with those people at that time, under those conditions, but he does say, "Gotta eliminate the culture." Numbers of people have argued it actually was a cleaner kind of war in some ways than much modern warfare. In modern warfare you leave all kinds of kids bereft of their parents and orphaned and so on. Look at the way the United States ran the Vietnam War, and not that it was not for a noble purpose but just so many of the mechanics of the process, defoliating forest and poisoning people in all kinds of ways and on and on and on, and a whole generation affected by that. This war says, "Look, no compromise, this is for the taking and holding of the Promised Land, it is a judgment war, you're my agents of judgment you Israelites, you're an army of people sent by the Judge of all the earth and you're going to do this for me." They saw it that way and accordingly understood that they were to annihilate an evil culture and totally do so. Another wrinkle. We are going to see this in connection with Joshua 7. I know I am not proving this by listing all the references and so on but if you will trust me, and indeed I am your friend. You can trust me on this. I am not giving you anything that is new or weird; I am just summarizing what you can read about in various books and articles on holy war.
10. The violator becomes the enemy. It is like Joshua says in Joshua 24, "You have got to choose now. Are you going to be on my side, the Lord's side or are you going to be on this other side? If so, get out and do it but don't try to pussyfoot in both camps. Do try to say ‘Yes I love the Lord and I have a few idols. What's the problem?' You cannot do that." And an Israelite cannot say, "Well, I'll engage in this but I'll just do one, three, and six," or something. No, you have got to keep all these rules. If you want to participate and you want the blessing of God, this thing is an all or nothing deal. "If you do not keep this holy war which is very important to me," says the Lord, "then I will not bless you, you are my enemies. You are declaring yourself on the other side if you don't stand as my agents of judgment." In the newest book that Fee and I are writing together, some of you have read, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, I certainly hope so because I have assigned it, but we are writing yet another book that is tentatively titled How to Read the Bible Book by Book and one of the themes that we try to trace right through into the New Testament into the book of Revelation is the theme of holy war. So once that book is out, and I hope it will be out maybe even this Fall or something [published in 2002 by Zondervan], we hope that one of the things people will see as they read through is our advice, "See again," we will say, "there it is, some more holy war stuff." This really is a very prominent theme. It is quite a significant thing. If you know these rules, there will be a lot of little things you will spot. You will understand much more about the book of Ezra, you will understand much more about the book of Esther, you will understand much more about Nehemiah, you will understand much more about several sections in the prophets. You will get the book of Revelation much more clearly and so on. This is a theme that has a lot more applicability than just Joshua.
11. Finally, also, there are exceptions. For example, if people are potentially your enemies but they are not themselves actual inhabitants of the Promised Land you can make different kinds of deals with them. This is for the elimination of a culture that is evil in the Promised Land. If somebody comes from afar and says, "Well, we would fight or we are allies of these Promised Land inhabitants." That is a different deal. You can make all kinds of arrangements with them and it is somewhat ad hoc. Now that is what of course is happening in Joshua 9. If you read for today in preparation you read Joshua 9 about how the people of Gibeon understood what was going on with holy war. They had years to learn this, what Joshua describes takes years to work out. So people are learning more and more and finding out more and more about how things fit together and these people of Gibeon say, "We are going to get wiped out, but we know that the Israelites are only after the inhabitants of the Promised Land." This is very clear. "Why don't we do this? Why don't we pretend we are from a distance, we're not natives and we'll come to them and say we want to make peace with you, then we'll get them to make a peace covenant and these people will keep their word, we believe they will. They are very serious about any kind of covenant." All that is known. Some of that is known because the Israelites are not just conquering territory and then refusing to talk to anybody. Israelites are settling in and talking and gabbing away. Many of them are already settled over in the Transjordan, Gad and part of Manasseh and so on, so they are gabbing away to their neighbors and the word is spreading back and forth, "What do you do with the Israelites and how do you handle them?" And so on. They get this all figured out and they send representatives, pretend that they have traveled a long distance, come to Gilgal where Joshua still is located, that is the headquarters, the original beachhead and we are from a long distance and we want to make a treaty with you. So they do, they make this treaty and work it all out and then basically of course Joshua finds out that they have deceived him and he will not dishonor his word. His word is very important to keep. He did say, "We'll spare their lives." But he did not say he would not say he would not make them workers among the Israelites, forced labor workers. So he says, "Okay, you deceived us, you will now be forced labor workers among us," and they were thereafter. So there are exceptions and mutations possible and you will see that as you go along.
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