An entire issue of “Modern Reformation” was recently devoted to the question of Holy War, notably the book of Joshua and Israel’s conquest of the Holy Land. The companion radio show devotes three segments to the topic, — “The Gospel According to Joshua,” “Is God a Moral Monster?” and “Holy War.”
The core article is by Michael Horton, who writes, ”How can we reconcile the God who commands the extermination of men, women, children, and even pets and possessions with the God we know in the face of Jesus Christ?” He notes that some Christians excuse these “texts of terror” as being merely allegorical, i.e., they didn’t really happen, but are supposed to represent the struggle we all face between the good and evil inside us. Others say that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New, so we shouldn’t have to defend that mean old God.
Horton rejects both rationalizations. He offers two counter theses. I don’t want to go into detail on his explanations, but he argues, first that Israel was subject to the same judgments and penalties as the Canaanites if they violate God’s covenant, — “It has nothing to do with ethnic cleansing or genocide, but with the fact that child-sacrificing, violent warriors, and unjust oppressors are squatters on God’s land.”
His second argument is that “No modern nation – including Israel (much less the U.S.) can engage in holy war.” He explains –
“This does not mean we can invoke the old covenant holy wars as a literal basis for modern nation-states, including Israel. Not even the church can use the temporal sword to defend the gospel. There are no nations in covenant with God: whether Israel, Britain, or the United States. “Christendom” is a serious error of Biblical interpretation. No nation will ever again be identified with God’s saving purposes in history. “
I have no argument with Horton here. I think he is right on both counts. But I think there is also something else he doesn’t deal with. That is that God is a pretty good sociologist (and anthropologist, too). He deals with us on our own terms, through our own social norms, in the context of what we are capable of receiving from Him, given our current state of development.
God hasn’t changed a whit. The God of the Old Testament is the exact same God as in the New. Both show us a God of love and forgiveness, but also a God of justice and righteousness. Neither book shows us a God who coddles sin. Jesus said he would separate the sheep from the goats on the last day. The Great Commandment Jesus spoke is the same as the one in Deuteronomy (with the addition of loving your neighbor). Jesus constantly quoted from Hebrew Scripture and said he was here to fulfill the prophesies. He did not reject the Old Testament and neither should we.
Mankind hasn’t changed, either. We are every bit as lustful, envious, greedy, and violent today as we were 4,000 years ago. All of the stories of deceit, rape, adultery, drunkenness, and betrayal in the Old Testament are familiar to us today.
What has changed is fashion and social structures. Jesus wasn’t dressed in blue jeans when he roamed Galilee, he dressed in the fashion of the time. If Jesus came today he would not be wearing a tunic and a robe. If he did, everyone would talk about his clothing rather than his message. God comes to us as we are.
In fact, I’ve heard a number of people say that God really screwed up by sending us Jesus when he did. If God were smart, they say, he would have waited until today when Jesus would have had access to the internet and cable TV to spread his message.
It’s an interesting thought because in fact God DID choose the perfect time for Jesus. It was a unique slice of time in which the sociological conditions were just right for Christ’s redeeming work.
The Jews had gone some 400 years without a prophet. They were hungry for it. They had been conquered and occupied several times after the last prophet, first by the Greeks under Alexander in the fourth century B.C, then ruled by Ptolemy in 323 B.C., then Antiochus III took over Palestine in 198 B.C., then Antiochus IV in 175 B.C.
This last Antiochus brutally suppressed the Jews, burning their Holy Books, banning the Sabbath and circumcision, and desecrating the temple. This all had a couple of effects. It made knowledge of Greek almost universal in Palestine, but also resulted in the Maccabean rebellion and the advent of the ultra-orthodox Pharisees, which came into being only about 100 B.C.
The Romans didn’t enter the picture until 63 B.C. when they occupied Jerusalem. They installed Herod as king in 37 B.C. Herod began rebuilding the temple in 20 B.C.  Ultimately the Romans would drive the Jews out of Jerusalem and all of Palestine, and destroy the Temple in 70 A.D. So there was a very short time of 90 years in which the Jews and Romans intersected and set the stage for Jesus.
Why was this intersection important? Because elements of both cultures were essential for the propagation of the faith after the Pentecost. Obviously the Messiah was an outgrowth of Judaism, but also the dispersion of the Jews during the Babylonian exile meant there were established Jewish communities and synagogues throughout the world. The Apostles used these synagogues as bases of operations as they spread the Gospel. The Roman Empire meant open borders and good roads throughout the territory they controlled. It was relatively easy for the Apostles to move about, not just the Middle East but southern Asia and Europe as well. And, of course, Rome finally accepted Jesus as the Messiah and spread the Gospel throughout the world.
So God knew exactly what he was doing. He waited until our society was ready before sending us the Christ. It had nothing to do with God’s abilities, but with our capacity to accept God’s purpose. God knows very well, in fact perfectly, what are the limits and capabilities of human society and of each human being. It’s often said that God will not ask us to do things beyond our abilities. The same holds true for human society.
So it was with Joshua. But before we go there, let’s go back to the Exodus.
Here we meet a landless people who had been enslaved in Egypt for 430 years. (Exodus 12:40) Actually they were barely “a people” at all. They had no written scripture, no law, no tradition of governance. They had a common language and an oral tradition, but that was it. This was a massive congregation of people – 600,000 men plus women, children and livestock, according to Exodus 12:37. Through Moses God freed them from slavery in Egypt, but what then? God had to turn them into a nation.
To do that, God made them wander in the wilderness for a generation. He would not allow any of the people who spent their adulthood as slaves to enter the Promised Land, including Moses himself. Perhaps adult slaves are not capable of self-governance, even once they are free.
Those 40 years gave Moses a chance to write the Pentateuch, providing the Israelis with a national history. God gave them the Ten Commandments, as the basis of their law. He gave them specific dietary restrictions and detailed instructions on how to build the Tabernacle. He divided them into a federation of tribes. All of this was to form them into a nation, one that was different and distinct from all other nations at the time.
Finally, we get to Joshua.
So we have some two million people, a new nation-to-be without any history of governance, economics, or warfare, coming upon a land occupied by idol worshipping heathens. God has united them into a people, but not yet a nation as they have no land and no borders.
God needs to teach them how to conquer. What he teaches them is no more than how war was conducted at the time. He was not uniquely brutal. He was attuned to the sociology of the times. The Israelites are triumphant as long as they follow God’s commands, but when one of them steals plunder from Jericho against God’s instructions, they lose the next battle at Ai. Once they correct the trespass, God makes them victorious again.
When Israel takes a city, they kill all the inhabitants, men women and children. Some people take offense at the brutality. But, as we said, none of this was unusual in those times, or for that matter today. Israel killed all 12,000 residents of Ai. But Josephus records that the Romans killed 1,100,000 Jews in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and took another 97,000 as slaves.
Before we get all superior acting about the barbarity of the ancients, let’s remember that the United States killed 66,000 with one bomb at Hiroshima – men, women, and children, all noncombatants. We did the same at Nagasaki and we firebombed Dresden. We would do it again if we thought we had to. War is likened to Hell for a reason.
So, again, God takes us as He finds us. With some notable exceptions we don’t do passive resistance very well. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were successful at it, but they were dealing with oppressors who were capable of shame. The March from Selma to Birmingham was broadcast on television to the whole nation. We were ashamed of the conduct of Bull Connor and it galvanized the rest of the American public to support remedies. Dictators and emperors have no such constraints.
God works through human beings, with all our faults and our sins. It was time to create the Nation of Israel, so that the Messiah would eventually have a place to be born. It was time to establish the Law, so we would know how sinful we are and so that the Messiah’s grace would eventually replace it.
It is all one Bible, all one story. God does what is necessary to build His kingdom within the constraints of human society. We are very slow learners but the Lord is very patient. To him a thousand years is like a day. Two thousand years ago he told us to spread the Good News to every corner of the world and we still haven’t got it done. He told us to love our God with all our hearts and all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. How we doin’ on that one?
Yes, I know, I know. We’re really, really busy, and the kids need to go to soccer practice and the boss wants me to work overtime, and the car needs a new transmission. It’s all right. God knows us better than we know ourselves. We don’t need to make excuses, He knows what’s going on and He loves us anyway. And for that, I thank God every day.
 This history is taken from “Intertestamental Period” in “The Reformation Study Bible,” R.C. Sproul, general editor, Lingonier Ministries, 2005.