Lecture 8: Holy War | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 8: Holy War

Course: Old Testament Survey

Lecture: Holy War

What I need to do at this point is talk about holy war and this is now an attempt to fill you in on the concept of war in the Old Testament. The locus classicus, the main central most important place to read about this is Deuteronomy 20, but it is not the only place. However, you will get a good overview of it in Deuteronomy 20.

I. Eleven Characteristics

There are eleven characteristics of holy war. Another one of my lists, but I think you will like it.

A. 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.

B. Then there is no pay for soldiers.

C. 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."

D. 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.

E. 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.

F. 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.

G. 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.

H. 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.

I. 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.

J. 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.

K. 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.

II. Holy War Theme in the New Testament

This is a concept that goes all the way to the book of Revelation. All through Revelation who is Jesus depicted as? Riding a white horse. In Matthew he is on a donkey, in Revelation he is on a white horse. In Matthew he has disciples waving palm branches at him and so on. In Revelation all the saints are behind him on their horses. That is holy war. What is he doing? He is conquering and eliminating evil. And so he has a sword in his hand this time and even a sword coming out of his mouth. You also have the warfare language that Paul uses in Ephesians 6 and if you examine that, that is right in the same ballpark as the warfare language of holy war in Deuteronomy or Joshua. Those would be a couple of examples right away. I do not mean by this that Christians are soldiers first and nothing else. There are a lot of themes in Scripture. We are also peacemakers. We also turn the other cheek. But God is fighting a holy war. What is God doing? He is doing what he always said; he is restoring the blessing and eliminating evil. Part of the function of holy war ultimately is to eliminate not just enemies in the Promised Land but all evil everywhere and the "final enemy" that is mentioned in Revelation, mentioned by Paul is death itself. The final thing to die is death and even in Revelation 20 death is cast into the Lake of Fire. Death, as a process, is destroyed. Those are complex themes that have to be worked out.

III. Significance to the Defeat at Ai

I want to conclude this chunk, actually everything here on Joshua, with Joshua 7 and talk about what happens when somebody does die. It will help, I hope, put the frosting on the cake of the concept of holy war, which is so prominent here in Joshua. Let me draw your attention to chapter 7. I would want to say this, remember how I said before, so much time spent on the first eight chapters and then just almost like an afterthought, "Well yes, there was also a southern campaign and a northern campaign," and just mention the cities. Why? What is going on? I think that everything in the first eight chapters is paradigmatic. We have talked about that with law; I want to talk about that now with narrative. That the inspired author has said, "I'm going to set the scene for you with these eight chapters. I'm going to talk about the basic concepts. I am going to get across what was going on in that block and then you just assume it was also going on in the other materials as well." I believe that that is a strongly arguable position. If you doubt it then you will just have to read the various commentaries on Joshua and see if they do not convince you by how they talk about this same block of material as being programmatic for the rest of the book. Here is what we have in this programmatic section. So far with chapter 6 everything goes well. They take Jericho, they march around the city, the walls fall down, it is fabulous, they march right in, put the people to the sword, and they have won and it is fabulous. Then chapter 7 starts off this way, "But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things." That is a general statement, "the Israelites." It is immediately narrowed down to one particular, most egregious instance but you have got to understand that that statement says a huge amount. The Israelites did not fully obey holy war. Remember what I said, point 11 or 10 or whatever it was, if you violate it, you become the enemy. So if it says the Israelites acted unfaithfully, they are heading toward becoming in God's disfavor rather than his favor. Here is what happens. A guy name Achan, son of Carmi, the son of Zimri and so on, took some devoted things. He took some of the things that should have been burned, destroyed, whatever. So the Lord's anger burned against Israel but I am suggesting to you it was not just this one instance, this is just a detailed story so you get the general idea. It was going on a lot. They tried to fight Ai. Ai is a little, tiny place. Do you know what Ai means in Hebrew? It means ruin. This place was called ruin. So apparently it was some city that once existed and had been destroyed centuries earlier and people were basically living there almost what we would call squatters in the English language. Squatters means people living in less than perfect conditions, to some degree even temporarily in a place not really in ideal, proper conditions. So this city is mostly in ruins, people are living there. The scouts come back. They say, "Don't send all the people, it would be a waist of time. Sent two or three 'elephs which I would argue would be two or three companies. It says, end of verse three, "Only a few men are there." It is a small group. So Joshua sends them and it says, "They were routed by the men of Ai who killed about thirty-six of them and chased them away." Look what happens, thirty-six people, you get thousands and thousands of Israelites, in any normal war thirty-six causalities would not be a big deal. That is very acceptable. You know there is an acceptable level of causalities. What do the Israelites do? It says, "The hearts of the people melted like water." Verse 6, "Joshua tore his clothes, fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, stayed there until evening, all the elders did the same, all the leaders did the same and Joshua said," verse 7, "Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan, to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us?" He is falling apart, the people are falling apart. Thirty-six casualties and they are berserk. Why is that so? Because their expectation was not a casualty. Their expectation was nobody gets killed. You do not lose anybody. It is holy war; God does the real fighting so the only part you have to do is what is safe. That is the idea of holy war. It is that extreme, so when they had a casualty, which is not mentioned anywhere before but that would be one thing to have thirty-six of them, that is real clear, God is not with us. Joshua knows, at least potentially, that we, the Israelites, have become the enemy. We are violators, we have become the enemy. Did you bring us across to kill us? He is afraid of being destroyed because thirty-six people lost in a battle. Every battle is supposed to be a success and nobody is supposed to get killed in the process. It is that extreme. It is very different. It is special. It is something that we are not used to in any warfare that we involve ourselves in. God then says, "The Israelites have disobeyed me, that is why it happened. They've taken devoted things, they've lied, they've stolen, they've put things in with their own possessions," verse 11. "That is why they can't stand against their enemies. They've become liable to destruction." Well, liable to destruction is what the enemy is supposed to be. That is the same terminology used of the enemy, destroy the enemy. Now the Israelites are. "I won't be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction." So what has to happen is, that basically, this guy Achan and his family and all that he possessed have to be destroyed because this was a collusion in which they capture things, he hid them under the tent, the family is involved in that and so on. It is a big fuss and they even name the place where they stone him, especially, and set up a heap of stones there and so on. Then they go and attack Ai and they succeed. From Joshua's point of view it looks like they have lost it all. That is how special the holy war was. That is how particular and different it is from anything that we would normally expect. Soon thereafter, by the way, he actually does an early covenant renewal at the end of chapter 8. He gets them up on Mount Ebal and has copied on stones the Law of Moses. So they actually carve, what presumably are the Ten Commandments at least, if not other things, and Joshua reads (34:8) the words of the law, blessings and curses and it says, "there is not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly, men, women, and the foreign born living among them." He is scared; he is nervous and wants to have the people back. Once they do that covenant renewal, that preliminary covenant renewal, they are back in favor with God, they are recommitted people, and then off they go and accomplish his purposes. Bear in mind that elaborate story in chapter 7. I would say to you that the message of that story is do not think the Israelites were really doing holy war all the way. Here is one instance and they were able to overcome it by God's grace but there is trouble. These people are not fully obeying holy war and there are significant results going to come from that. Those significant results include the fact that they did not then have the ability fully to conquer the Promised Land. At the end of the book of Joshua, what do you have? By the admission of the book itself, openly and clearly, partial control. There are large pockets where the Israelites are not in control and that is the way the book of Judges opens.

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