Killing and War in the Old Testament

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Question: The Sixth Commandment reads, “You shall not kill” yet in other places in the Old Testament we read where God commanded the Israelites to wage war and sometimes to even exterminate their enemies. How can we understand this?

Killing and War in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the taking of life in war was not considered murder. Soldiers were sent into battle charged to fight bravely and destroy the enemy. In a few cases, according to the texts, God commanded Israel to put whole villages, towns and cities to the sword. “Destroy them utterly.” Israelites were commanded to kill even the elderly, women and children, and even the animals. They were to spare nothing living.

This aspect of the Old Testament faith grates against modern sensitivities. The Old Testament is not a modern book. It records the violence of war and reports what today we would call genocide. Because of this some people, troubled by these kinds of stories, reject the Church and the Bible and say, “Look what a blood thirsty religion it is.” This poses a challenge to our faith. We believe that the Israelites entered Canaan with a mandate purported to be from God to exterminate the inhabitants of the land. How can we understand this in the light of Jesus Christ? Did God really command them to kill so fiercely and destroy so utterly? Is this the same God revealed in Jesus Christ?

I know of many Christians who have also wondered about this. Usually we just avoid the question. But those texts stand written in our Bibles in all of their offensiveness and crudity. How shall we think of them?

The social context of the ancient world

First, in those days most every nation, tribe and clan slaughtered their enemies and enslaved able bodied survivors whom they chose to spare. The women and children were loot for the conquerors. That was nothing new. Such practices were the order of the day. Such behaviors in war were not considered wrong or immoral (just like child sacrifice was accepted among many pagans). Theirs was a “dog eat dog world.”

Might was right and only the strong survived. They fought for land and for resources, much the same as we do today. They battled over control of the trade routes. They fought for access to the sea or to a river. They struggled to gain the land of hills laden with iron or pregnant with rich veins of gold. Peoples clashed over who resides in the land of the best fields of fertile soil or which terrain offered the most strategic defensive positions. Wars were fought to acquire land and resources for survival and safety. The best went to the mighty. Spoils went to the strong. Theirs was a brutal world. Thomas Hobbes summed it up when he wrote, “The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The world then was a violent place, as it is also today. We are not much different from those ancient people. Nations today fight wars over control the oil reserves of the world or for access to the water sources.

In the world of the Old Testament Israel behaved in ways typical of the surrounding nations and their Gentile neighbors. The Bible was not a modern book and it does not reflect modern sensibilities. So how can we understand the world “red in tooth and claw” back then? Did God, in fact, command the massacres, order the slaughtering of whole populations and require the mass killings? This has troubled many sensitive consciences of those who read the Old Testament. How shall we regard those passages?

God accommodates to the present social realities

Here is how I have come to understand the situation. God accommodated to the human reality and the necessities of the era. It is as though God comes down to our level and adapts to the realities of thought and life in that ancient world. Israel would hardly have survived at all as a people in the world if they had turned the other cheek towards their enemies. They would have been annihilated in quick order. That almost happened many times. Outside of Divine intervention Israel would have been eradicated.

God accommodated to the realities of the world in those days. In order to speak to us and establish a nation for Divine purposes God adapted and used the conventions of that time. In this case God employed the “Holy War” to allow Israel to establish itself as a people. This did not reflect either God’s heart or God’s perfect will. It was an accommodation to the situation of the real world, a world of violence, brutality, injustice and sin.

Jesus Christ reveals the true heart of God

The death and mayhem inflicted by Israel, though necessary for the time, did not reflect the mind and heart of God. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. The prophet Ezekiel cried out, As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Ezekiel 33:11

The true heart and mind of God was not fully revealed until Christ came. God’s bigger purpose was made known fully in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus completes, fulfills and corrects whatever views people had of God derived from the Old Testament. The Old Testament people lived according to the light they had. It was a dim light indeed compared to “…the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ”!

God led Israel in terms that they understood. God was working a much larger plan in the history of salvation. God called a nation of slaves out of their oppression and slavery. They were idol-worshipping pagans. God chose to form them into a people. God established a covenant and revealed to them the holy law. They must give up their other gods and swear allegiance to Yahweh alone. God promised to provide them with their own land. To do that it was necessary to accommodate to the realities of that tribal world. God works in and through ordinary human history. That history is warped and distorted by sin. God can use even sin for the divine purposes. God used Israel as an instrument of Divine judgment on the nations and in turn God used the nations as instruments of judgment against Israel. If we don’t understand that, chances are we will grasp little of the story of Israel or the words of the prophets in our Bibles.

We cannot use methods of warfare that were appropriate for a primitive tribal people in the 12th Century before Christ. We must not use these ancient texts to justify modern wars of genocide, ethnic cleansings, wars of extermination, or policies of wholesale slaughter today. Today we do well not to look to a particular Old Testament text to gain our insights about just cause or just behavior in war. Rather, once Christ came, we look to Jesus. We seek his divine counsel. The crucified Jew guides us.


  1. Chris says:

    I find much of this posting disingenuous.

    You say God “accommodated” the realities of the world in those days. Two problems with this, first he “accommodating” the slaughter of women and children is not a position I would advocate on behalf of someone who is supposed to be a great moral authority. Second, “accommodated” seems a bit passive, considering he “commanded” them to kill the women and children.

    You say this “grates against modern SENSITIVITIES”, rather than make the statement that it “conflicts with modern morals”, as if commanding the slaughter of infants is just a matter of me being overly-sensitive in this modern day, and not an issue of moral standards.

    I could go on… anyway, someone appears to be quite impressed with you, and has posted a challenge for unbelievers to debate you on but I for one am underwhelmed by the sorts of excuses you must make while trying to reconcile reality with ancient myths.

    • Kim Crutchfield Kim Crutchfield says:

      Kim Crutchfield
      Hi Chris. Thanks for posting. To be honest, I have never been completely satisfied with my deliberations about war, either. With you, I believe war is a horrendous and destructive reality. I wish there was no such thing on earth. However, nations and peoples do not love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. I look forward to the day when there will be no more wars. That is my hope.

      I am surprised that you find my post disingenuous? I am not trying to be dishonest in the least, nor do I wish to cover up anything I believe. As a Christian I honor the ancient texts. I simply wish to find a way how we may understand the ancient texts that contain commandments and mandates that we today find morally abhorrent today. My way of dealing with these texts may not prove compelling to you. I understand and respect that. I don’t doubt that ancient people believed that God commanded them to perform acts in war that we today find morally unacceptable. Theirs was a tribal deity. We have come a long way since then. The notion of God has been an evolutionary development.

      If you find the word “accommodate” problematic, perhaps you can suggest a better word. For me, I am simply trying to express what I believe is always true: God works with us in the categories that we understand and yet moves us toward more developed views. I might make some of my conservative Christian friends uneasy by saying that I see an evolutionary development in moral deliberation. I love the words of the hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation” which reads, “New occasions teach new duties. Time make ancient goods uncouth.”
      Moral principles, maxims, rules, commandments and practices that governed an ancient Hebrew’s ethical life is not appropriate today. I think I pointed that out in my post to which you responded.

      When I write that God accommodated to social realities of the past, I believe God does so today. I believe that the defeat of Naziism and Imperial Japan was God’s will.

      In my view, God condescends (or accommodates) to the limitations of our cultural and societal norms. Those ancient stories and commandments that you (and I) find morally reprehensible (e.g. commanding the wholesale slaughter of the population of the Canaanites, or stoning adulterers, or legislation on slavery) depict accurately the social horizons of an ancient people. It is difficult, but not impossible, to recover how a people so removed from our life world today thought, felt, or practiced in the past. Culture is socially constructed. Human beings have been in a long and tenuous journey of change and development over the centuries.

      It is difficult for us to reconstruct the thought and feeling world of people only as far back as the 1950s! I think of how in my life time, African Americans were required by social norms to sit in the back of a bus, use separate restrooms, and drink for separate water fountains. What was the logic? What were the sensibilities of that day? How did many good people believe such a thing, almost on an unconscious level?

      But even closer to home, truthfully, I cannot completely reconstruct how I felt and thought as a 17 year old. My major battles were over long hair and wearing bell-bottom blue jeans. I filed for conscientious objector with the draft board, but was denied. But when I try to remember what motivated me then, I cannot recall. I did not belong to an historic peace church. Nor was I really very politically aware of the issues surrounding the war in Vietnam. I was a teenager, dazed and confused.

      My point is that when I try to interpret a text of antiquity, like the Bible, I must be alert to the fact that those ancient Hebrews lived in a culture very different than mine today. In the Bible I find stories, myths, saga, epics, etiological tales, and folklore that derives from a different of age. Yet I see God working through those ancient cultures. The views of God were in process. I think I pointed something like this out in my original post. It is my conviction (completely un-provable) that the mind and heart of God is best revealed in Jesus. I follow that Poor Man of Nazareth.

      If you prefer the phrase “conflicts with modern morals” to my more timid “conflicts of modern sensitivities”, I have no argument with you there. I was not trying to be precise. However, I have to ask you, to whose modern morals are you referring? As far as international conflict goes, are you referring to the modern morals of Verdun, Pearl Harbor, Dresden, Auschwitz, Nanjing, Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Have we really developed morally that far over our ancient ancestors? Are the ethics of the Third Reich, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia examples of modern morals? Would you ascribe to the moral understanding of humanity as developed by Peter Singer of Princeton University that holds that children prior to the development of language are not considered persons and may be terminated, thus granting the ethical justification for infanticide. Perhaps Nazi eugenics is an example of modern morals. Of course, I realize that you probably find those examples of modern morals also reprehensible. But why?

      In what moral tradition do you stand? What informs your moral deliberations? My guess is that you really mean higher ethics when you say modern morals. You and I may be on the same page about that. You probably believe in being kind and honest with other people. You probably believe that we should treat people as ends but and not as means. You may be against torture in war. Are you against carpet-bombing? nuclear first strike capabilities? Assassination of dangerous and maniacal political threats? All of these are the agonies of the situation we find ourselves.

      Summing up modern morals, Fyodor Dostoevsky quipped, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

      I believe that you probably agree with me that it is not modernity that has developed higher ethics. Moral traditions have all played a part. Our modern ethics in the West result from a conglomeration and confluence of Greek philosophy, Roman jurisprudence, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage, Enlightenment thinking and humanism. And yet, our wars in the last century and this new one have proven far more deadly and devastating than anything an ancient Hebrew or Assyrian were capable of imagining.

      To your charge that I am trying to reconcile reality with ancient myths, (as you put it) I think you missed the point entirely. I acknowledged in my post that those stories are not normative for us. However, I do not dismiss them as useless. Only a Philistine would discard the rich heritage of the past.
      Chris, could we move this dialog to the Theological Forum? It is easier there. Thanks again for posting.

      • Chris says:

        You have raised many separate issues that go off in all different directions. My original point was point that focusing on “accommodation” as a passive verb was disingenuous when the actual verb you should use is “commanded”, which shows the active involvement in these immoral acts that is actually recorded. I will endeavor to break up your response into separate points and threads in the forum. So each can be more easily addressed.

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