Life & Relationships

Does the Bible Condone Violent Conquests?

On the 12th of June, Cru held a webinar on “Covid-19 Conversations: I’ve Always Wondered (Part One)”, the sixth in its ongoing series of special webinars with distinguished speakers to provide a platform to ask questions, receive counsel and be discipled during an unprecedented time of our lives.

THE PROBLEM

Have you ever struggled with the Old Testament God?

Through Israel’s history, He seems to constantly condoning and initiating violent conquests of the neighbouring lands, including the mass slaughter of entire peoples.

For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, God (through Moses) gives a rather startling commandment to the Israelites:

“However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the LORD your God has commanded you.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

How could we call a God who decrees such a thing loving or kind? How could we call a God who commands total destruction of a peoples just or fair? Furthermore, doesn’t this set a precedent for religious extremism and violence?

These were some of the difficult questions dealt with by Rev Dr Lewis Winkler, Lecturer of Theological & Historical Studies at the East Asia School of Theology during the “I’ve Always Wondered… (Part One)” webinar.

He addressed it with the following three points.

 

 

THE ARGUMENTS

Firstly, we have to keep in mind the literary context in which the account was written. Hyperbole was used in the Hebrew text and would have been recognised as such by the reader of the day.

It’s like how when a soccer commentator says that one team “decimated” another, where we can deduce the meaning behind it, not taking it at face value. Likewise, when it says that Joshua “totally destroyed” the Amalekites (Joshua 11:21), we should understand it as more of a complete military victory than an utter genocide.

Secondly, this was a picture of God’s judgment on deserving peoples. He was acting “on account of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut 9:4).

We need to have a realistic image when we think of Canaan in the day. They were not a group peaceable pasture-dwellers minding their own business; they were ruthless and evil.

They were engaging in all manner of debauchery and violence, including child sacrifices to god Molech (Lev 18:21). They worshipped gods like Baal and Asherah who led them to do acts like bestiality, incest, and temple sex. If such a nation were to exist today, in fact, we might well be asking why the God of justice wasn’t acting against them.

Israel essentially was God’s rod of judgment on an exceedingly wicked people, and Israel in turn experienced Assyria & Babylon as rods of God’s judgment when they themselves were acting wickedly.

 

 

Thirdly, God has a sovereign right to accomplish His purposes. He desired to make for Himself a covenant people faithful to Him, that would reveal His glory and name in the world. He knew that the surrounding nations, with their idolatrous and rebellious practices, would draw them away from Him.

He has the ultimate, divine right to do whatever is necessary to secure that people for Himself. As the apostle Paul puts it:

“But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does no the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Rom 9:19-21)

Dr Lewis emphasized that there is, of course, a difference between the covenant relationship God had with Israel exclusively and the covenant relationship He has with all nations through Jesus Christ. What God commanded the Israelites to do was unique to that specific moment in time and history.

Furthermore, such acts of war were never meant to be in accordance with man’s judgment, but God’s, as revealed by a prophet. In fact, we have seen the horrible results of man embarking on ‘holy wars’ without God’s initiation, such as in the Crusades.

Nonetheless, it is a sobering thought: we are not God, and are subject to His mercy.

God Moves in Mysterious Ways

In 1773, William Cowper penned the hymn, “God moves in mysterious ways”. He was no stranger to pain and darkness, having battled with heartbreak, depression, and suicidal tendencies through his life. Yet, because of his deep understanding of God’s character, he was able to write this song of praise. 

Read more

THE UNCHANGING GOD

However, we know that God does not change (Heb 13:8). The God of the Old Testament, who can seem so harsh and almost cruel, is the same God of the New Testament, who, in love, sent His own Son to die for the world that we may have eternal life.

To reconcile this, we may need to rethink love.

We have a tendency to think of love as a cuddly, ‘soft’, weak thing; if God is a loving God, surely He wouldn’t get angry or violent. He wouldn’t even harm a fly.

However, true love does not mean allowing wrong things and injustices to carry on uninhibited. Love does not stand idly by as the object of its affection is being violated or marred.

Love ultimately means doing what is best for the person – even if it hurts. God’s judgment is still love – it protects humankind from spiralling down into the black pit of sin, where they cannot know the peace, joy and rest that is in Him.

Moreover, let us never lose sight of the big picture: God’s plan was always to save all peoples from all nations for His glory. Though we ourselves were once like the Canaanites, deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), God sent His own Son to bear the judgment we deserved!

All of the wrath the Canaanites endured for their sins, is the very same wrath Christ endured for our sins on the cross.

God did not change in between the Old Testament and the New; there is always wrath for sin. The only difference is in who bore it.

 

This article is about one of three issues dealt with - the other articles can be found here.

Timothy is a young adult (and occasional poet) passionate about inspiring in people a deeper interest in God’s Word, and discovering the divine in the ordinary. He is a graduate of Tung Ling Bible School (School of Ministry) and an undergraduate of NUS. He also enjoys musicals, crosswords and a good game of chess.

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