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A Biblical Apology
How shall we defend the OT commands to “Holy War,” which in some ways seem to resemble the Islamic calls to Jihad? To begin with, we must ensure that our underlying interpretive framework is biblical. As one writer has observed, “The life situation and presuppositions of the reader profoundly affect the way in which the text is interpreted.”11 Therefore, let’s establish the context and nature of God’s commands. Then, we can offer several arguments to justify these commands.
The Context of God’s Commands
The context of the command is a sinful world under God’s curse (Gen 3:8ff). If we remember this fact, then the real question is not, “Why would God exterminate the Canaanites?” but rather “Why has God withheld judgment from so many other sinful nations?” Furthermore, God’s promise to redeem the world necessitates the destruction and removal of evil (Gen 3:15; Matt. 6:10; 2 Pet 3:13). Thus, “Holy war and the description of God as warrior need to be evaluated in the context of God’s redemptive efforts on behalf of a fallen world.”12
The Nature of God’s Commands
As to its nature, God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites may be viewed, first of all, as divinely authorized capital punishment on a societal scale.13 Just as God authorized the state to execute capital punishment upon evildoers (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:1-4), so too in a similar but more unique sense, He authorized the nation Israel to carry out His punitive sentence upon the Canaanite nations of Palestine (Gen 15:16; Lev 18:24, 25; 20:23; Deut 9:4, 5).14
Second, holy war may be viewed as the means by which God would fulfill his promise of land to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:1; 13:14, 15; 15:16; Exo 13:11; 32:13).15 If the “seed of the woman” are to experience God’s blessing, then the “seed of the serpent” must be crushed. If God is to give Abraham the Promised Land, which he owns in the first place, he must first evict the unworthy Canaanite tenants.
Third, God’s command may be viewed as a divinely sanctioned religious duty calling for Israel’s faith and obedience. The passages calling for holy war commonly employ the Hebrew term herem (literally: “to set off-limits or to devote to destruction”), a word with religious significance (Deut. 7:2; 20:17; Josh 6:17; 1 Sam 15:3). As Walter Kaiser notes,
The root idea of this term [חרם] was “separation”; however, this situation was not the positive concept of sanctification in which someone or something was set aside for service and the glory of God. This was the opposite side of the same coin: to set aside or separate for destruction.16
For this reason, when God commanded the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, He was calling upon them to engage in a religious activity. This leads one OT scholar to note that “battle is portrayed as an act of worship in the Hebrew Bible.”17
The Justification of God’s Commands
In light of the context and nature of holy war, God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites may be justified under the following biblical principles:
First, the Canaanites had known about Yahweh’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel for many years (Josh 2:10, 11); yet, with the exception of Rahab (Josh 2:12, 13), they did not repent. Therefore, the Canaanites stood under the just condemnation of God (Rom 1:18-2:16).18
Secondly, the Bible teaches (as does the light of nature) the principle of corporate solidarity, whereby the actions of an individual may affect the larger community for good or evil (Josh 7; Rom 5:12-21).
Thirdly, God’s love for his people and desire to maintain their purity required the preventative excision of that which would inevitably corrupt their devotion to the true religion (Deut 20:16-18; cf. Deut 7:1-6). As Wright points out, “divine love is a two-edged sword.”19 Like a surgeon, God removed the cancerous growth of Canaanite depravity in order to promote the longevity of his people.
Fourth, we must remember that Israel’s holy war against Canaan is a redemptive-historical type of spiritual and eschatological warfare (cf. Eph 6:10-18; Heb 4:1-11; Rev 19:11-21).20 Holy war was a type of “Last Day of Judgment” breaking into to human history. As Meredith Kline remarks, “The conquest … was not, as it is so often stigmatized, an instance in the ethical sphere of arrested evolution but rather of anticipated eschatology.”21
Finally, The OT “holy war” was limited to corrupt and hardened sinners within the parameters of Canaan and was provisional/temporary in nature (Deut 20:10-18). In this sense, it differs from Islamic Jihad. Muhammad, the false prophet, says Jihad is a perpetual conflict that will not end until every knee bows to Allah. Jesus, the Final and Greatest Prophet, says that he will operate by a different modus operandi: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Accordingly, Christians march to a different drum and tune than does the devoted Muslim:
Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.
When placed under the light of the overall Biblical teaching and worldview, the theological and ethical “problem” of holy war is not as formidable as it may at first appear. In the end, those who have serious problems with the OT Holy Wars probably have serious problems with God Himself.
Lessons for the Church20
I think we can defend God’s commands to kill the Canaanites. But are there any abiding lessons we can apply to the church today? Let me suggest at least nine.22
First, God’s commands to Holy War remind us to be preeminently concerned with God’s honor and rights above mere human honor and rights. Second, God’s commands to Holy War remind us of the seriousness with which God views human sin. Third, God’s commands to Holy War remind us that the consequences of sin often extend beyond the individual to the family, the church, and the society. Fourth, God’s commands to Holy War remind us of the dangerous influences of an anti-Christian society around us. Fifth, God’s commands to Holy War remind us how zealous God is to protect true religion. Sixth, God’s commands to Holy War remind us of the serious commitment to His word that God expects from His people. Seventh, God’s commands to Holy War provide us with a picture of our spiritual battle against remaining sin, the world, and the devil. Eighth, God’s commands to Holy War as localized and provisional provide a contrast with the kind of NT “Holy War” that’s been authorized by our “Great Prophet,” Jesus Christ. Finally, God’s commands to “Holy War” provide us with a foretaste of that ultimate battle between Christ and all the minions of evil yet to come.
Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (1982), 142-43, 157-59; Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011); Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (1978), 33-54; William Brenton Greene, “The Ethics of the Old Testament,” Princeton Theological Review 28 (1929), 313-66; Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (2003); John W. Haley, Discrepancies of the Bible (n.d.), 266-70; Paul D. Hanson, “War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 38 (October 1984), 341-62; Everett F. Harrison, “Have We a God of Destruction?” Bibliotheca Sacra 91 (January 54), 25-34; Jeph Holloway, “The Ethical Dilemma of Holy War,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 41 (Fall 1998), 44-69; Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Hard Sayings of the Old Testament(1988), 106-09; Toward Old Testament Ethics (1983), 74-75, 266-69; F. Derek Kidner, “Old Testament Perspectives on War,” Evangelical Quarterly 57 (April 1985), 99-113; M. G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (1972) 154-64; Tremper Longman III, Confronting Old Testament Controversies (2019), 123–206; Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God is a Warrior (1995), 13-47; J. P. U. Lilley, “The Judgment of God: The Problem of the Canaanites,” Themelios 22 (January 1997), 3-12; “Understanding the Herem,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993), 169-77; Patrick D. Miller Jr., “God the Warrior: A Problem in Biblical Interpretation and Apologetics,” Interpretation 19 (1965), 39-46; Gustav F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (1883), 81-83; G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament and Theology (1969), 121-50; Johannes G. Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Westminster Theological Journal 4 (May 1942): 123-138.
11 Jeph Holloway, “The Ethical Dilemma of Holy War,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 41 (Fall 1998), 64.
12 Ibid., 53.
13 Johannes G. Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Westminster Theological Journal 4 (May 1942), 135-36.
14 Recently, John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton have put offered a novel approach to the Israelite conquest. They insist that the reader should view God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites not so much as a divine judgment against an evil society but rather as God directing the Israelites to bring order to chaos. The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites (IVP, 2017). This fanciful interpretation has no exegetical support and only aggravates the ethical problem of the divine commands. For an excellent rebuttal, see Longman, Confronting Old Testament Controversies, 172–76.
15 J. Lilley, “The Judgment of God: The Problem of the Canaanites,” Themelios 22 (1997), 8-9.
16 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (1988), 107.
17 Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God is a Warrior (1995), 34.
19 G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament and Theology (1969), 130-31.
20 Cf. Holloway, 57.
21 The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eerdmans, 1972), 164.
22 For other attempts to highlight the contemporary relevance and application of holy war to the church, see Lilley, Judgment of God, 9, 10; Kidner, 107-113; Holloway, 66-69; Longman, 91-192.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.