Why so much war in the Old Testament?

In the Old Testament there is so much war and violence sanctioned by Yahweh. Is this the same loving God portrayed in the New Testament?

Let’s take this seriously by quoting a few verses that seem repugnant to us. For example, Deuteronomy 20 contains Yahweh’s instructions about war. If a city does not accept Israel’s offer of peace and open its gates, then “when the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it” (verse13). With regard to other cities, the command is (verse 16), “Do not leave anything that breathes.”

You probably also recall that the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and then the Israelites “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21). This certainly seems brutal and vindictive, doesn’t it? Or consider Joshua 11:20, “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” From our twenty-first century point of view, we ask, “What good was accomplished by all this annihilation?”

Yet there is clearly another side to Yahweh as well. While the prophet Ezekiel does not spare the wicked in his denunciations, he also records Yahweh’s words of grace: “If a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die” Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:21, 23). And he goes on in verse 32, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” And there is this compelling verse recorded in 2 Chronicles 16:9, “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”

All these descriptions of God depict him as unwavering in retribution on evil, though he takes no delight in it, and also unwavering in love and encouragement toward those hearts are turned toward him. God’s obvious desire is that sinners should repent and live. But there comes a point where evil is finally intolerable and wiped from off the earth.

We must see these terrible retributions in their historical setting. The spread of wickedness was so pervasive that immorality, degradation, and barbarity invaded every facet of life. Children were sacrificed to pagan gods. Male and female prostitution took place right in the temple as part of the religious rites. Idol worship was rife and the society wholly contaminated. This evil was contagious and God’s people were in danger of being infected as well. God’s awesome judgement was finally unleashed.

Today we have lost that black and white distinction between good and evil. Tolerance is presented as the great religious value. Indeed, tolerance of diversity is a high Christian value, but often today tolerance is taken to mean the virtue of accepting nearly every behavior under the sun. Anything goes – in the name of tolerance! A sweeping moral relativism is the result, and children grow up with fewer and fewer moral absolutes to guide them. We seldom hear the term sin anymore, but instead a dozen much milder words are employed. Surely the Lord will not tolerate this abomination to his holiness forever.

Nor do we like to accept the fact that when evil spreads, the innocent as well as the guilty are hurt. When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the city died, both the innocent and the guilty. A few days later, as a direct result, the war came to an end. It was a terrible end, but it was the end, and greater carnage was avoided. Let’s be clear about this stricter and more communal view of justice in the Bible. The Canaanite pagan communities would surely intermarry with the Israelites, and God’s people were in danger of succumbing to their sexual perversions and religious degradation. Finally, the danger became just too much.

The entire Bible from beginning to end never deviates from this standard of justice as well as grace. Jesus is crystal clear about the punishment of evildoers, for on the day of judgement God will say to the evildoers, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Our society does not much care to hear about pain and punishment, and prefers the meek and mild Jesus of some contemporary writers. But the God of the New Testament is the changeless God of the ages.
And in that affirmation lies our only hope. Clearly we have all missed the mark. Each of us stumbles, and wounds, and sins. Even the most godly affirm that over and over. In God’s enduring justice, he never simply blinks casually at sin. But that is not the end of the story, nor even the overriding theme of the Bible. For as humanity spirals deeper into self-gratification, God intervenes. Indeed, the Old Testament is a record of God’s intervening in the human situation with a new promise of hope. The New Testament is the record of grace applied to people lost in sin and rebellion. There was no compulsion placed on God to undertake this rescue operation. But the plan was and is indescribably marvelous. God did not forget about guilt and justice. Rather, Jesus Christ, the God-man, took on himself the punishment and so satisfied the grisly sentence. This is what Christians call grace. The Bible is mainly a record of grace, set against a backdrop of horror and misery.

This is an ageless and eternal story, persisting into this new millennium. The evil surrounding us seems to be growing and moral apathy seeps in everywhere. But still God’s grace shines through. His love persists. He calls and calls until the very last moment. Have you discovered his grace? It’s there – available for you to live in every day.


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