The Wars of Israel
The fact that Israel went to war and slaughtered their enemies, oftentimes to the last man, woman, child, and animal, is not the real problem. The real problem arises when God “commanded” they do it. When they did, they received His approval, but when they did not, He reproved them strongly. For instance, when Saul did not completely destroy the Amalekites, he received a very severe rebuke from God through the prophet Samuel.
Despite the Lord’s clear instructions, supported and illustrated by frequent demonstrations of His way of doing things, the Israelites showed a persisting disposition to take matters more and more into their own hands, thereby denying the manifestations of God’s character and ways.
It all began when they took the sword after crossing the Red Sea. Between that time and their arrival at Kadesh Barnea in Readiness for the border crossing, there had not been a great deal of bloodshed. The two most notable incidents were the battle with the Amalekites and the slaughter of the worshipers of the golden calf.
Yet God had never intended that they should gain the land of promise through the use of the sword. He told them how it would be done and assured them that He would do it, not they. Long before they reached the Promised Land it was all spelled out.
I will send My fear before you, I will cause confusion among all the people to whom you come and will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Cananite, and the Hittite from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beast of the field become too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and you inherit the land. And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea to the Sea, Philistia, and from the desert to the River, for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you (Exodus 23:27-31).
Thus the Lord emphasized that He would drive out the inhabitants of the land. Earlier, we have found that such expressions must be understood differently when describing God’s actions from when they describe people’s actions. Therefore, God driving them out would not have been by His using compelling power. Rather, as He came to them with His offering of love, their resistance to and rejection of these would have placed them outside God’s protective circle leaving nothing to save them from the destructive forces in the hands of the destroyer.
But they decided that displacing the inhabitants of the land was something they could not leave for God. They must do it themselves. This spirit really came to the forefront when they reached Kadesh Barnea. God’s plan was to fulfill His promise to lead them directly into the land. Accordingly, as recalled by Moses, God told them to go in under His leadership and possess it. Here are Moses’ words as he reminded the children of Israel of the event.
“So we departed from Horeb, and went through all that great and terrible wilderness which you saw on the way to the mountains of the Amorites, as the Lord God had commanded us. Then we came to Kadesh Barnea. And I said to you, ‘You have come to the mountains of the Amorites, which the Lord our god is giving us. Look the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has spoken to you; do not fear or be discouraged’” (Deuteronomy 1:19-21).
Had they had the spirit of trust in and submission to the Lord of heaven, they would have responded by following without doubt or question where the Lord led. The inhabitants of the land would have fearfully retreated or would have attacked them with a rashness born of desperation. Such an action would have been one of complete and final defiance against heaven, whereby their separation from God would have been so total as to remove all divine protection from them. Speedily they would have perished as did the Egyptians, Korah and his company or the Israelites themselves when plague broke out among them.
But the Jews did not trust God, as is evident from their response to His directions. Here is their answer: “And everyone of you came near to me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, and let them search out the land for us, and bring back word to us of the way by which we should go up, and of the cities into which we shall come’” (verse 22).
Here indeed was the substitution of man in place of God. Divine leadership was discarded in favor of human leadership.
How did God react to such a development? Was He offended? Did He demand His rights, insisting they do it His way? Not for one moment. If that was the way they chose to go, then all he could do was respect their choice and bless them as far as remained possible in their execution of their plan.
Eleven days after leaving Mount Horeb the Hebrew host encamped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Paran, which was not far from the borders of the Promised Land. Here it was proposed by the people that spies be sent up to survey the country. The matter was presented before the Lord by Moses, and permission was granted, with the direction that one of the rulers of each tribe should be selected for this purpose. The men were chosen as had been directed, and Moses bade them go and see the country, what it was, its situation and natural advantages; and the people that dwelt therein, whether they were strong or weak, few or many; also to observe the nature of the soil and its productiveness and to bring of the fruit of the land (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 387).
Thus it was that “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.’ So Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the children is Israel’ (Numbers 13:1-3).
If the reference in numbers was read without considering the other statements, it would appear that the whole idea was from God. But it was from the people, which was contrary to Gods plans. Yet it declares that Moses, by the commandment of the Lord, sent the twelve men. When the word “commandment” is used in connection with human behavior, it indicates an authoritative statement that is to be obeyed, irrespective of whether the recipient likes it or not. It becomes clear, however, that when used by the Lord it is more in the form of instruction or counsel with the choice of whether to obey or disobey being left with the people.
Thus the people took over their own leadership from God’s hands. This was a further step in the wrong direction. Taking the sword had given them their own government in place of God’s, but they had still followed the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The time had now come when their self-confidence and their corresponding lack of faith in God led them to reject even that leadership. God was not offended. He behaved with perfect consistency. He gave them the liberty to choose whether they would follow His plans or their own.
If they wanted to send men in before them, they were free to do so. Of course, the situation could be worsened if poorly suited men were to go. Once again, in His love for them, God gave them directions to bring about the best outcome – thus He instructed that responsible men should be elected from the task.
But what a disaster it proved to be. It was a mistake that prevented that entire generation from entering the promised Land. During the following forty years, everyone who had been twenty years old and above at the time was to die in the wilderness, except of course, Caleb, Joshua and members of the unnumbered tribe of Levi.
When they did finally follow the Lord into the land of Canaan, they did not send twelve spies first. It is true that Joshua sent out two spies, but the basis of their being sent was completely different from that of the previous experiences. It had to be different for, whereas the people forty years before had placed their faith in themselves, Joshua had no confidence in himself. He placed his entire trust in God.
Joshua was a wise general because God was his guide. . . . This was the secret of Joshua’s victory. He made God his Guide (the SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 993).
Whereas the people called for the spies to go forth at Kadesh Barnea, no such call came from them at Gilgal. This was from Joshua, and it was not motivated from any distrust in the Lord’s leading. It was more likely that the Spirit of God directed him to do it for the salvation of Rahab and her family. It gave her the opportunity to recognize God’s power as being supreme and to demonstrate her faith in the power by hiding the two men. As a wonderful reward for that faith, she was accorded the high honor of being a mother in the direct line of the promised Messiah.
In sending those spies into the city, God demonstrated His character of wonderful, saving love. Inasmuch as Joshua had made the Lord his guide, it was God who chose to send the men in. He knew the heart of Rahab and her household. He knew she would respond to His call of salvation, but she was imprisoned within the walls of Jericho, and by no means could she go out to the Israelites. Therefore, the Lord sent those two men to her. She responded to the divinely provided opportunity and showed where her faith was. Thus she became known to the Israelites so that, when the city was destroyed, she survived and was rescued.
Thus far we have traced Israel’s persistent tendency to replace the Lord’s leadership and management with their own. It was now to be shown that God, with loving regard for His erring people, was trying to bring them back to the only safe path, which involved laying down their swords, thus giving God his rightful place as Guide, Protector, and Provider for His people. As a result, they did not need to fight, break the law, or stand sadly by the graves of those slain in battle.
As they crossed the Jordan and marched on to Jericho, the Lord spoke to them once more in a mighty demonstration designed to reveal His full capacity to fulfill His promises to give them the land. It was a hopeful attempt to establish their faith in Him that they would abandon all confidence in self, lay down the sword, and permit God to do His work in His own way. It was the reiteration of the same lessons that God had sought to teach their Fathers as they left the land of Egypt.
As the waters of the Red Sea were opened to them by the miraculous power of God, so where the flooded waves of the Jordan rolled back to make a safe path for the people. As the Egyptians had been prevented from coming near, so, in the crossing, the Canaanites made no approach to them. Yet, from the military point of view, it would have been an excellent time to attack. With half of Israel on one side and half on the other, their forces were divided. The enemy could have speedily reduced their army portion by portion. But they did not come near them.
Then the Lord commissioned the Israelites to march around the city once per day until the seventh day when they were to march around it seven times. Then the massive walls came crashing down.
It should have been enough. They had the mighty promises of God; they had the multiplied lessons of the past, which are at all time easier to read and understand than those of the present; they had God’s clear instructions that the land was not to be taken by warfare; and now, once more, they had a personal demonstration of God’s tremendous power doing his promised work.
God gave them a specific instruction for taking the city. In this He had a purpose. Desiring to deliver them from their own self-destructive ways, He organized an exercise in faith designed to develop in them the sense of utter distrust in human power and planning on one hand and of total committal to God’s leadership and instruction on the other.
“By faith the walls of Jericho fell down.” Hebrews 11:30. The Captain of the Lord’s host communicated only with Joshua; He did not reveal Himself to all the congregation, and it rested with them to believe or doubt the words of Joshua, to obey the commands given by him in the name of the Lord, or to deny his authority. They could not see the host of angels who attended them under the leadership of the Son of God. They might have reasoned: “What unmeaning movements are these, and how ridiculous the performance of marching daily around the walls of the city. Blowing trumpets of rams’ horns. This can have no effect upon those towering fortifications.” But the very plan of continuing this ceremony through so long a time prior to the final overthrow of the walls afforded opportunity for the development of faith among the Israelites (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 493).
God’s whole design in this adventure was to call them back to a nonbelligerent status. Through this means “it was to be impressed upon their minds that their strength was not in the wisdom of man, nor in his might, but only in God of their salvation. They thus to become accustomed to relying wholly upon their divine Leader” (Ibid).
Indeed, it should have been enough.
Right then and there they ought to have stripped themselves of their armor, laid it in a great heap, confessed the sovereignty of God, and expressed their complete trust in Him to give them the land He had promised in the way, He had said He would.
But they did not do it. They rushed into the city, and soon their swords were dripping with the shed blood of men, women, children. What a terrible, scarring effect that must have had upon their souls! Such a work could not lift people nearer to God. It would tend to brutalize them, to make them callous of life, and benumbed to the finest, most uplifting attributes of the divine character. With increasing clarity it must be seen that such actions on the people’s part were never intended by God. (There are some statements in regard to the overthrow of the walls of Jericho that make it appear that God was a direct destroyer in this case. We will examine these later when other difficult statements are discussed).
But against every effort and good intention by God, the people did not see the implication of clinging to the sword, which their fathers had taken up. They could not feel secure without it. They depended upon it to protect them from their enemies. They wanted to care for their own protection with the help of the Lord.
As surely as they clung to the sword, they came under the unavoidable law that declares that all who take the sword will as surely perish by the sword. Their history after Jericho gives the clearest vindication to this principle.
It may be argued that it was not taking the sword but their loss of faith in God which occasioned their destruction as a nation, for whenever they, with the sword in their hands, put their trust in the Lord, they were victorious. This is true, but what has to be seen is that the act of taking the sword was the fruit of their loss of faith in God. Only a people who did not wholly and totally trust God to be their protector would take the sword. That first downward step into unbelief must inevitably be followed by others, especially as the practice of warfare would brutalize the warrior and make him still less receptive to the call and ways of God.
So, the Israelites at Jericho came to a point of decision, a type of cross roads. They could have let God finish the work of conquest for them, or they could use the brutal sword. Tragically, they made the wrong choice – the one that was the fruit of unbelief. Palestine was not conquered in harmony with God’s principles but according to the Israelites’. Because they still retained His presence and leadership in some parts of their lives, a measure of his power remained among them so that they were often victorious. Apart from that, all He could do was to give them instructions for conducting war mercifully. There was to be no torturing of victims, and they were to obliterate specific nations that were given completely over to their own gods, being completely closed to God and the principles of His kingdom. Here are some examples of the explicit instructions He gave Israel regarding military rules of engagement, their chosen method of operation.
When you go near a city to fight against it, then proclaim an offer of peace to it. And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and then open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you and serve you. Now if the city will not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God delivers it into your hands, you shall strike every male in it with the edge of the sword. But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall strike every male in it with the edge of the sword. But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoils, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall eat the enemies’ plunder which the Lord your God gives you. Thus shall you do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations.
“But of the cities of these people which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).
The utter destruction of the people of Jericho was but a fulfillment of the commands previously given through Moses concerning the inhabitants of Canaan: “Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them. Deuteronomy 7:2. “Of the cities of these people, . . . thou shall save alive nothing that breaths, Deuteronomy 20:16. To many these commands seem to be contrary to the spirit of love and mercy enjoined in other portions of the Bible, but they were in truth the dictates of infinite wisdom and goodness. God was about to establish Israel in Canaan, to develop among them a nation and government that should be a manifestation of His kingdom upon the earth. They were not only to be inheritors of the true religion, but to disseminate its principles throughout the world. The Canaanites had abandoned themselves to the foulest and most debasing heathenism, and it was necessary that the land should be cleared of what would so surely prevent the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 492).
We can see from these instructions that even within the paradigm of their choice to take up weapons and engage in violent combat, God wanted to direct them to seek peace instead of war. He would have delivered the land up to them by different methods had they left the sword alone (Deuteronomy 7:20). Yet, He also instructed them in how to conduct warfare in the best way possible, as a concession to their choice to take up weapons and go into warfare. The instructions given on how they were to conduct different military campaigns were never arbitrary but were directly related to the spiritual realities of the people who they were coming against. God alone knew whose “cup of iniquity” was full and who would not be receptive to Him, His people, or His ways, God alone could know their condition.
Ever since God’s instructions for civil rule had been delivered to Israel from Mount Sinai, they had mistakenly regarded them as being exactly what God, in His heart had planned for them. Like so many millions since, they showed a sad ignorance of what God’s righteous reality is. They did not understand that these instructions were not the expression of His principles but merely an improved version of their own chosen course. The same applies for the instructions given for conducting the wars of Israel.
God delivered such counsel only to those whose unbelief had cause them to depart from the pathway of faith to self-protection dependent upon their utilizing their instruments of coercion. It was out of loving consideration for victims of those in power that He admonished them to limit the exaction of their ideas of revenge and dominance. Their human tendencies would place them at the opposite end of the scale from God but between these two choices there was a situation which, though it still could not be God’s perfect plan, was considerably better than the one where they were left to their own devices.
The three positions were as follows:
First, there is God’s perfect way, which Jesus lived and taught. It calls upon the manifestation of that love which never retaliates, always turns the other cheek, goes the second mile, loves all enemies, and does good to those who do evil. Weapons of force have no use under these principles. This requires a real and abiding faith in God to successfully operate. The children of Israel lacked that faith and discarded these ideas as impractical and dangerous. They were, in short, foolishness to them. They could not see how survival was possible under these conditions.
At the other end of the scale is the behavior of those who have no regard for God and consequently pay no heed to His counsels. They are ruthless, cruel, revengeful. They torture their enemies, extracting the utmost suffering to satisfy their revengeful passions. The death camps of Germany during World War II – Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belsen – were demonstrations of this kind of spirit. Tremendous privation and suffering was experienced by those who fell into the terrible hands of the Third Reich. It was impossible for God to save them from this because the powers that were in charge had no disposition to obey God in anything.
The intermediate situation operates because of two things. First, there is God’s compassion for the oppressed, leading Him to seek to minimize as far as possible their suffering and loss. Second, those who are doing the destroying are willing to obey Him in some things at least. So throughout the world those nations and individuals who respect God and profess to be His people accept and follow these counsels even though they do not have the faith to trust Him implicitly as their Judge and Protector.
While Israel maintained some connection with God and was prepared to obey Him at least in some things, they also insisted on carrying out their own ways, resulting blood-shed and brutality, which cannot be considered as perfect display of the righteousness of God.
Human brutality is exactly what the Lord was seeking to save them and their enemies from when they took up the weapons of destruction. This is why He gave them specific instructions regarding warfare. This is because they had chosen their own ways over God’s ways and decided not to heed his voice in all things. If they had heeded His perfect will for them, they would have chosen to be obedient to the principle of love for one’s enemies and returned good for evil, which Christ explained in the Sermon on the Mount.
God’s way does not use force to put down rebellion, and it has no retaliation, no exacting retributions, no violence, no use of the sword, and therefore, no killing. Jesus identified this alone as being God’s pattern of behavior by advising that those who did likewise would be like His Father in heaven (Matthew 5:48).
Humanity’s way, if left entirely to themselves, is such that they will love their friends but will hit their enemies as hard as they can. The objective is actually to hit them much harder than they hit you so as to convince them permanently that it would be suicidal to launch any further assaults against you. This system of violence for violence continues in fearsome escalation as each seeks to guarantee their own security by the rule of fear.
When God was not able to hold them safely in His way, then He worked to save them from their way. This is why the compromise situation exists. What God is really saying by this is, “Very well, you have made your decision to take the sword and thereby depart from My ways. I cannot change your decision. You make it and in freedom it stands. But I can save you from the worst effect of that choice if you will accept and respect the advice I now give you. Do not be wanton and revengeful killers. Exact only an equal payment for what has been taken from you. Let there be no more than one eye for one eye, and one tooth for one tooth. Meanwhile, I will ever seek to win you back to the way of faith and obedience, back to the pathway where there is no killing or revenge but only the manifestation of My character of love.”
Not that continuing in the middle of permissive will is not the way of salvation. It is only a temporary measure to prevent escalation of violence unto extinction, until such a body of faithful believers may develop on the earth and will understand His perfect way and return to it. These permissive laws are not good. They are not the way of life. They are only a measure of control on wickedness.
If the relationship between these three ways can be clearly discerned, and if it can be recognized that only the first of them is God’s way, then it will be seen that there is not a single story in the Old Testament to prove that God destroys. Only Satan destroys, and people destroy, but never God. He is the Saviour who is only working to restore and to heal. He knows no other work than that. The whole history of His dealing with ancient Israel, when rightly understood, testifies to this.
Thus far in Israel’s history, we have seen a number of incidents in every one of which, to a larger or lesser extent, the Israelites chose to go the way of unbelief. There was that persistent tendency to cast off God’s leadership and ways and to substitute their own.
Bad as those choices in the past had ben, a worse step was yet to be taken. It was when the people came to Samuel and asked him to ask God to give them a king. This king was to judge them like all nations. The people insisted on this, saying: “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles (I Samuel 8:19, 20).
Again the people were making decisions, and again God had to relate Himself to them in their decisions. With unvarying consistency, He did here what He has done in every other such situation. He gave them full liberty to make that choice. He made no moves to forcibly stop them. All He did was to outline in vivid terms what they were bringing upon themselves, but when, after that revelation of horror, they still stood by their decision, He gave them what they wanted.
God did not threaten them with personal punishments if they rejected Him. A careful reading of I Samuel 8:6-18 will show that the Lord outlined only the results of their taking that course. He told them that the king would do terrible things until they would wish that they had never taken the king to rule them.
And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your gain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants” (I Samuel 8:11-15).
This is the description of heaven oppression indeed. The king would build up a court of great luxury and ease for himself, but it was the people who would be paying the accounts. Taxation would become increasingly severe until the people were poverty-stricken. All this did come to pass, but not by the imposition of God. They had brought it on themselves by their own waywardness.
The decision made in Samuel’s day was a duplication of the step taken at Kadesh Barnea. It was a direct and specific replacement of the Lord as their leader. In the first case, it was a committee of twelve men while, in the second, it was with the king. Both led to disastrous consequences. In the first, it led to their being unable to enter the Promised Land and thus being forced to wander for forty years in the wilderness.
In the second case, it was followed by still further departures from God. Soon They were not only looking to man as their leader, but worse still, to gods of wood, stone, brass, gold, and silver. The futility of such gods was demonstrated as they became the slaves of their enemies, captives in the land of Babylon.
But they would never learn. They persisted in their determination to rule themselves and go their own way until, in the end, they cried out their total rejection of God and His ways in these words, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15). This was the final step in that long, long road of persistent and determined substitution of God’s ways with their own way. They had finally stepped outside the circle of God’s presence and protection. The fearful consequences were delayed only for the sake of those who, like Rahab in Jericho, were still open to hear the voice of entreaty and love. That accomplished, the destruction of the city, the temple, and the nation was no longer preventable.
The history of that unfortunate nation, rightly understood, places God in His true light. Whereas there has been the tendency in the past to see Him as being in total control of that nation so that what they did was the expression of His character and will, it becomes very evident that this was not so. Rather, they had stubbornly refused to allow Him his full and rightful place in their community. They had substituted their way in place of His way so that what they did in the slaughter of the wicked was anything but the expression of His character and methods.